The Bystander, the Mother, the Son: an Autistic Meltdown Perspective
You just got off a race car attraction at a theme park with your wife and two kids, ages 6 and 8. The ride exits into a flashy showroom full of sleek looking vehicles. A shiny, black pick-up truck, a large gray SUV and a fiery red sports car are just a few of those on display. The doors of each vehicle are wide open beckoning guests to hop in. Your kids climb into the black truck and pretend they are off-roading. Next, they jump into the SUV and pretend they are you and your wife taking them to soccer practice. Lastly, and most excitingly, they rush over to the red sports car! A small boy, who looks to be around 4, is in the driver’s seat. A woman, you assume the mother, is sitting in the front passenger seat. A man, you assume the father, is standing outside the open door of the car next to the boy.
Your kids hop into the vacant back seat to wait their turn. The boy has a death grip on the steering wheel and is repeating the phrase, “Stop it, mommy. Stop it, mommy.” Ah, you see what is happening. The mother tells him, “Your turn is over, buddy.” The father puts his hands on the child’s hands in attempt to remove them from the steering wheel and the boy then begins to shout even louder, “Stop it, daddy. Stop it, daddy!” The father and mother keep pleading with the boy offering him snacks, the promise of what’s next, but he won’t budge.
You see the agitation in the parent’s faces. You’ve been there. More than once. But you just can’t help but think this whole ordeal has gone on way too long. Your kids are getting antsy wanting their turn in the driver’s seat. You roll your eyes at your wife and she gives you that, don’t say a word, glare. She has way more patience than you do. You tell your children, “Let’s go check out that cool yellow car over there.” The woman upfront, who’s completely failing at coaxing her child out of the front seat, leans out the door to where you are standing and says, “Sir, I am doing everything I can to get him out. I am so sorry.” You didn’t mean to offend her.
The father finally pries the boys hands free and the second he does the child bites his forearm then abruptly drops to the floor flailing his limbs and screaming “Noooo!” Your kids, oblivious to what just occurred, excitedly jump to the front seat. You keep watching this scene unfold. You wonder what is going to happen next. The parents just stand there. The child is having a temper tantrum and they are doing nothing! This surprises you. You would’ve either popped the kid on the bottom, not enough to really hurt but to get your point across, or got in his face and sternly told him he better quit that nonsense right now or we are leaving.
You are grateful you and your wife are both on the same page with discipline and that your kids are, as a result, pretty easy. Clearly, these parents need to rethink their parenting approach because it’s not working. Eventually, the child gets up and the parents take him by the hand and walk out. You are pretty sure everyone in the building is glad to see that kid leave.
You just got off a race car attraction at a theme park with your husband and 4-year-old son. The ride exits into a flashy showroom full of sleek looking vehicles. A shiny, black pick-up truck, a large gray SUV and a fiery red sports car are just a few of those on display. The doors of each vehicle are wide open beckoning guests to hop in. You know your son pretty well. He is going to head straight for the red sports car. “McQueen, McQueen,” he says as he jumps into the front seat.
He takes the wheel and starts making driving sounds. Then you hear him mumbling and every now and then you can make out a word: McQueen, Mator, Race. You know he’s reciting the lines from one of the “Cars” movies he’s seen a thousand times. You jump in up front next to him and your husband stands on the other side of him by the door. “Is McQueen winning the race?” you ask. Your son doesn’t answer, he’s focused on what is happening in his own mind.
After a few minutes you notice a couple of older kids climb in the back seat. You know it’s time to get your son out and you are dreading it. He is so dialed in right now. At home, when this happens, it can go on for a while. He is going through a storyline in his mind. Disrupting him would be like someone sitting in a movie theater and right before the climax the movie cuts to black.
You attempt to nudge him back to reality by by rubbing his arm. “Stop it, mommy. Stop it, mommy,” he begins to chant. “Your turn is over, buddy.” You hear the father of the two kids in the back say something to his kids. You feel judgement. You tell him, “Sir I am doing everything I can to get him out. I am so sorry.” Your husband cues in and tries to pry your sons hands from the steering wheel. “Stop it, daddy. Stop it, daddy!” Your cheeks start to flush. You begin to feel the adrenaline pumping through you. You know a meltdown is about to happen. Your husband is trying to help by reminding him of his snack in the stroller and telling him you are going to another ride now. Nothing works.
Eventually, your husband physically removes your son’s hands from the steering wheel and your son instantly bites him on the forearm. He then flings himself down on the floor and begins flailing his arms and legs and screaming, “Noooo!” at the top of his lungs. You feel the disapproving glare of hundreds of eyes penetrating your skin like laser beams. This never gets easier. You and your husband know the routine. You calmly stand by, making sure he doesn’t hurt himself, and wait. A few minutes go by. Your son’s screaming slowly quietens. His flailing body slowly goes limp. His clinched eyes slowly open. He looks up at you, rises to his feet, grabs your hands and the three of you walk out.
You just got off a race car attraction at a theme park with your mom and dad. It was super fast! You had so much fun. There was one part with flashing lights that you didn’t like. You’ve learned when things in your environment overwhelm you, to close your eyes until it’s over. So that’s what you did and it worked.
Now you are walking into a big room with cars everywhere. You instantly see one that catches your attention. It’s a red sports car! To you, it is Lightning McQueen. You rush over to it. The door is open so you hop inside. You grab the steering wheel and all of a sudden you are in a race! Your best friend Mator is watching you. “Hi, Mator,” you say as you speed by. You are winning the race, but another race car is catching up to you. You need to go faster. Just a few more laps and you’ll win!
You feel something touch you. You swat it away. You have got to win this race. All of a sudden you feel your hands being pulled away from the steering wheel. What is happening? You begin to panic. Instinctively your jaw clamps down on the closest thing to you. You don’t know what is going on, but you are angry! You need to win this race. Everything starts to fade to black as your eyes shut tight. You feel like you are falling into nothingness. You are scared. You begin to flail your arms and legs trying to grab at something, anything. “Noooo!” you scream. You scream and scream until you don’t have any screaming left. You just lie there, exhausted and confused.
Eventually, you open your eyes. You see your mom and dad. You are in a big room. There are a lot of people you don’t know. You want to leave. Your mom and dad grab your hands and the three of you walk out.
An autistic meltdown is not a temper tantrum. It is not the result of bad parenting or bad kids. It is not the child trying to be manipulative to get their way. It is an overly emotional response to overwhelming sensory input, anxiety or stress. A temper tantrum typically ends if the child gets what they want. With a meltdown, it has to run its course. Caregiver’s must make sure the child is safe, as meltdowns can result in self-injurious behavior, and wait it out offering the child comfort when it’s over.
If you observe a meltdown in a child, even if you aren’t sure if the child has autism, understand the parents are doing the very best they can in that moment and feeling judged makes it worse. Instead, back away, keep unsolicited advice to yourself, don’t stare, and after the meltdown is over offer a smile or an encouraging comment. Empathy goes a long way!
“Never look down on anyone unless you are helping them up.” — Jesse Jackson
Getty image by TalitaNicolielo