little black girl learning to write the alphabet with her mother

I’m not a perfect mother. I do my best, but quite often I fall short — like most every other mother who is trying to balance parenting, a career, and every other aspect of adult life. Yet I’m also the parent of a child on the autism spectrum. Some days I forget that, simply because this life is the only one I’ve ever known. I adore my two beautiful, brilliant children who deal daily with the challenges that can accompany being on the autism spectrum. I’m so proud of what they’ve accomplished so far, and I’m excited about what they are destined to do in the future. There are days when I don’t realize there is anything different about our challenges than those of any other family.

Today, however, isn’t one of those days.

We all have ideas as to what we plan to do on the weekends. Those plans might include doing chores, like dishes or laundry. They might include going to visit a friend, seeing a movie, going out to dinner, or getting some shopping done.

As for me, I planned on getting some fiction writing done after getting some cleaning out of the way. Things aren’t going as planned.

While cleaning up the kitchen, I heard my daughter Gerri Anne begin to fuss in the next room. She was having trouble with a game she was playing. At first, I thought I’d resolved her problem, so I walked away and continued what I was doing. She started to get upset again, this time crying and swatting at me in frustration.

Now, to the casual observer, this might be considered a tantrum.

It’s not.

It’s the beginning of a meltdown.

A tantrum is often about a child not getting their way. They may be angry about a specific situation. They often know why they are angry and they might choose to deal with it by acting out. A tantrum can often be easily and quickly managed with parental discipline and intervention.

A meltdown is entirely different. Now, I don’t have a PhD, so I’m not going to give you the textbook definition of a meltdown. I’m going to give you my definition as a parent of a child on the spectrum. A meltdown happens when a child with autism spectrum disorder is experiencing an emotion and/or situation they can no longer control or process through their normal means of dealing with the experience.

When a meltdown occurs, a child cannot manage the onslaught of emotions and sensations that come along with it. They might begin to feel frustrated that they can’t fix the situation. Then they may become angry and confused, because in addition to not being able to fix it, they also can’t control the way they feel about it. They can’t calm down, so they may cry. They may scream. They may hit, because they want help, but they can’t verbally express what their exact needs are. They might not know how to ask for help, or they don’t know how to calm themselves down enough to form a cohesive thought so they can ask for that help.

Discipline isn’t going to help in this situation, even though that might be the automatic response of many parents.

In my experience, what can help is getting the child to a place where they can begin to calm down enough to manage all the external and internal stimulation that accompanies a meltdown. I’ve found you need to get them to focus on something other than what started the meltdown in the first place. Some ideas include taking the child to a quiet room, wrapping them up in their favorite blanket, talking to them in a quiet voice, helping them count down from 20 or 10, etc.

I’ve found that a combination of all of these works with Gerri. It’s not enough to simply distract her or remove what started the meltdown in the first place. First, she has to know I’m calm in order to help herself calm down. If I become upset, that only makes things worse.

She needs to focus on something new, so today I spoke to her a in quiet, almost whispered voice. I reassured her I was going to help her, but she had to focus on me. I assured her she has the power to calm down, and I would help her get there. Once she listened to me, I held her and rubbed her back. (Always ask a child if they want to be held. Sometimes the sensation of being touched or pulled toward someone can only makes things worse.) I wiped her tears away and made a little joke in the process. I changed her shirt and told her that wearing her palm tree T-shirt would help her feel better because “palm trees grow in sunny, happy places, and sunny, happy places like sunny, happy faces.” She smiled. I wiped away the rest of her tears. I then told her we were going to count down from 20 and that she had to help me. I said once we reached one, she would blast off in the rocket and would feel better.

I held her, and as we counted down from 20, I began to shake like a rocket. When we got to one, I said, “Blast off!” and she jumped off my lap. I asked her if she felt better, and she said, “Better.”

I’m not an expert. I didn’t learn this through reading a book. Like many parents, I learned this through trial and error. It can be a difficult road, and it’s different for every child. I’ve found you have to be creative. You have to adapt and do so quickly. There are so many techniques and theories out there. You have to experiment and find what works best for your child.

My advice is this:

  • Read what you can, when you can.
  • Educate yourself as much as possible.
  • Get involved in your child’s world if you ever expect them to be able to function in yours.
  • Be patient: Parenting isn’t meant to be easy.
  • But the most important advice of all — love them, because that’s what they need more than anything else: love.

Image via Thinkstock.

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Bright lights, loud noises, my breath catches in my chest. I force it out, gasp it back in.

People everywhere, every one of them a threat to me. I feel the panic rising, getting stronger. Someone bumps into me and my heart rate jumps a thousand feet.

You can get through. You’ve done this before. It doesn’t have to end in panic. Just get though. Just get through. Just get through.

I can’t see. I see too much. I hear everything, the noises constantly growing louder. I can’t drown then out. My own heartbeat is agony; it’s so loud. My body isn’t responding. I try to walk to somewhere I can sit down; somewhere I can be alone.

Mom, Dad, where are you? I need you. I don’t want to do this. I’m alone and so scared. Help me. I can feel tears coming. I try to scream, but the most I can manage is gasping. The world is spinning. I feel myself falling, but everything is in slow motion. I sense my body hit the floor, but I don’t feel it. I don’t feel anything.

Nothing but panic.

I can’t see. I gasp in, in, in, in, but can’t breathe out. I feel hot tears streaming down my temples. Everything is spinning. I am screaming, but I can’t hear myself. I am aware of only one thought. I feel like I am going to die.

As a 17-year-old with autism and generalized anxiety disorder, every day is difficult, but some more than others. This is something I was born with. My life is hard, but rewarding.

I am an introvert, and what I call “me time” is necessary to my ability to function.

One of the questions I am often asked is, “How does autism affect your life?” 

My answer? 

I have a hard time in any public place, whether it’s a mall or the doctor’s.

Loud noises are extremely painful. I not only hear the noise, I feel the sound waves hitting my eardrums.

Florescent lights are a unique kind of torture. They flicker, not enough for most people to see, but to me, it feels like someone is hammering my eyes from inside my skull.

I hate it when people touch me, especially on my skin. The feel of someone touching my skin almost always feels so cold it burns me.

I have a large “personal bubble.” I don’t like people I don’t know well within five or six feet of me.

I can read people well, and most people are an open book to me. I can’t really explain it. It’s like trying to explain why you’re good at science or physics. It’s just the way your brain is wired.

I love animals, most of all horses and dogs. They are what I connect with best. I believe I can tell what a horse is thinking and if it is feeling pain anywhere in its body. I can open myself up to understand what is going on in their mind. I have been called a horse whisperer several times. I know that’s what it probably seems like to someone watching me with a horse. I wouldn’t know — I just know that when I’m with a horse, or a dog, everything feels right. Everything is in place, and I am completely calm. It’s the only time in my life when I have no anxiety. It’s just perfect.

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Images via Thinkstock

On January 20, my son was asked to write a letter to our new president, Donald Trump. It was inauguration day, President Trump’s first day in office, and to help the kids make connections from themselves to our new leader, she asked the class to pen a letter. Here is what he wrote:

Dear Mr. President

Congratulations. My name is Jack. I am twelve years old. I hope you will be an honest leader. Please build more schools and homes for the people who don’t have a home. I would like for you to make food for the hungry. Please be aware of the people you are leading. Think your decisions all the way through. Use expected behavior.

Thank you for listening.

My son attends a specialized program for children diagnosed with Asperger’s (autism spectrum disorder), ADHD and anxiety. His teacher emailed this to me because she was proud to see him work through the assignment using the tools he has learned. At first finding the right words was challenging. He had heard a lot of conflicting information over the length of the campaign, all those months of soundbites that permeated everywhere, and it is easy to understand how a young man could become scared and confused about our new leader. After a short time, he was able to work with his teacher to articulate his thoughts and hopes for our future.

Jack has learned many tools to help him navigate his academic programing as well as his social and emotional needs. He has a level of perseverance that is inspirational to those who know him. I read this letter back to him and he again expressed that it was hard to write it. As part of Jack’s diagnosis, he tends to see things in black and white terms, and although he has improved in this area, it is still a part of him. I told him how proud he should be that he worked through this letter. Jack’s words, his beliefs, and his dreams for our future, presented an opportunity for a deeper lesson: a plan for action.

“We don’t need to wait for the President, or anyone else for that matter, to make a difference in our community or in our world,” I said to him as we snuggled on the sofa. He nodded and kissed my cheek. My son has fears and reservations about our new president. It is my job as his parent to alleviate his fears and help him make sense of things that are troubling. It is also my job to empower him. He has done an amazing job at home and school learning, growing and advocating for himself, now he wants to see positive changes for others. I hope the act of taking action will help alleviate his concerns about other kids not having enough food or warm clothing to wear. He will be in control of creating the things he asked to see in our country.

Jack will be the change he wishes to see in the world…

I cannot wait to see where he takes us.

Editor’s note: This story reflects an individual’s experience and is not an endorsement from The Mighty. We believe in sharing a variety of perspectives from our community.

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Sometimes it’s frustrating being an autistic person. Sometimes neurotypical friends and family members can have a hard time understanding me. I don’t blame them, they are not in my body, so they can’t feel what it’s like to have ears that are like microphones, and what it’s like to feel sick when I smell a certain scent (mashed potatoes for instance). I keep quiet about being autistic or if I’m feeling bothered by noise. I don’t tell people because I’m afraid that they will be upset.

Once I was in sensory overload and people wanted to help me. I wanted to talk to them, but I couldn’t talk. I was so overwhelmed by noise and anxiety that I lost my words. People in my life who aren’t on the autism spectrum also have a hard time understanding why I need “routine.” Routine is my way of having predictability, which reduces anxiety for me. If there are multiple changes, I get anxious. If there are too many changes, then there is a possibility of having a meltdown.

The best thing for me to do is to be patient with them, even if I am super frustrated or anxious. I have to realize they are not autistic. Some people in my life are starting to understand me. I try to explain what it’s like to be autistic in terms they can understand. Even just turning the volume down on the radio can be helpful for me.

I may not be understood all the time, I may feel frustrated, I may have sensory overload multiple times, and I may have anxiety. But I will keep pressing on. I want to develop my talents and enjoy life, even if life throws me a lot of curveballs.

Follow this journey on Ausomely Autistic.

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ABL Denim, which creates jeans for adults who use wheelchairs, has expanded their offerings to include jeans for children with sensory sensitivities.

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