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When My Autistic Son Realized I Was Having a Meltdown

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There’s this thing out there in the Spectrumite world. It’s called a meltdown. To some, it may look like a tantrum or a panic attack or even a seizure. And while all of those things are absolutely real, so is the meltdown.

Let’s get one thing out of the way before we go any further. A tantrum is not a meltdown. Repeat after me: A. Tantrum. Is. Not. A. Meltdown. A tantrum, often observed in toddlers and young children, is a common response to a desire not being met, such as receiving a wanted toy or particular food. When that item is received, the crying, screaming, shouting, etc. ceases because that desire is met and the child is no longer in want of it. We’ve all seen the parent in the grocery store telling a child “no” to the impulse item in the checkout line. You’ve heard the wails and screams and then, when that parent says yes, the negative responses stop, nearly immediately.

Meltdowns are very different. They are the brain’s response to having to process too much stuff. Too much noise, too much emotion, too much to do, too much stress, too many people, too many voices…too much…too much…too much. I often think of the good ol’ holiday favorite, “The Grinch That Stole Christmas.” In recent years, I’ve speculated that the Grinch is autistic. Think on that a little. Remember how the Grinch complains about the Whos in Whoville and their “noise, noise, noise?” Meltdowns do not simply cease when a wished-for item is granted. A meltdown may be preceded by a tantrum, but there’s a lot more going on under the surface than it appears.

I like to describe my sensory and emotional experience of autism as a bucket. As in, there is a specific amount, er, “threshold,” if you will, that once met, I cannot undo without some work. Public place with crowds? There are some drips into the bucket. Unexpected change to an event? The faucet might have just been turned on halfway. Missed meal, lost phone, and background noise that is like fingernails down a chalkboard is a fire hose on full blast. All of my day-to-day activities fill this imaginary bucket that “the autistic side of my brain” as Jackson likes to say (keep in mind, he’s 8 and believes there is just one part of his brain that causes him to be autistic) struggles to process.

Once my “water level” starts to reach the brim of the bucket, I begin to feel anxious and in the “Yellow Zone.”* I’ve been with my partner long enough that he can see it, even in a crowded baseball arena with a child between us. He has described it as my pupils dilating, my eyes darting, a long stare and a rigid body. (These are what I look like prior to meltdown. Everyone is different!)

Sometimes, my body and my brain feel better when I am able to do some sensory activity like body brushing, drinking a cup of tea, using my calm box, or heavy work. I recently got a weighted blanket that has been fabulous for not only my sleep, but for giving me deep pressure when I’m on the brink.

However, there are still dark moments when I cannot avoid a meltdown. When I cannot avoid the tears and the non-communicative moments. The impulse to lock myself away in a safe place and gently rock my body. There are moments when I feel such overload that my bucket is sloshing all over the place and I cannot control anything. It is in those moments that I feel my most vulnerable. Because any sound, any touch, any small thing can be another assault on my nervous system that can push me and my bucket all the way over.

Today was a meltdown day. I often refer to them in jest as “days I’d like to move to Australia.”** It was a long morning with unexpected hiccups in my day. First, it was trying to find a post office that was open while Jackson was at his Saturday morning therapy. Then, we stopped by a crowded co-op shop to purchase a specific item I needed. I was trying to juggle a phone call and could not focus because all I could hear was the noise around me. Jackson wanted nothing more than to go play on the playground across the street. Any other day, I would have loved to let him, but I needed to use the restroom. He was relentless in his requests.

A woman who worked there… she saw me. And I say it like that because she asked if she could give me a quick tour around the facility, noting after we got away from the crowd at the register that she could tell I looked quite uncomfortable. She must have seen what my partner sees. God bless her. So, she got me a reprieve and when we returned, the crowd was gone and I was able to check out in peace.

Yet, it went on. Drips, drops, leaky faucets, showers and downpours into my bucket, including a near-mishap with the garage door and my body. I had a moment of weakness. I shouted at Jackson. I went into the house, used the restroom and began to cry. The crying turned to non-stop tears. I made myself lunch and tried to gulp it down. I got my blanket and wrapped myself in it. I tried to keep it from coming. I tried to meet those primal needs because I could feel that bucket beginning to tip like at a water park. And it did.

I went to my room. Shut the door. Knelt on the floor with my blanket pushing its weight into my back. When my friend called, I auto replied that I couldn’t talk. I texted her back telling her I was having a moment. She asked if she could help. Old me would have insisted I could handle it. I’m not so stubborn anymore. I asked if she’d mind helping with Jackson for a bit this afternoon. I felt like I needed some time for my brain to have a break.

Jackson must have known that the meltdown was upon me (we can sense these things with each other) because a bit later, I heard him knock on the door and ask, “Come in?”

I told him “no.”

He shoved his little fingers under my door, which my body was stiffly against. “Hold my hand, Mama.” So, we held fingers for a minute. “I’ll be back,” he said and a few seconds later, he knocked again and requested entrance. I moved my body and he opened the door.

He put his Calm Bin down in front of me, non-verbally offering it to me. He knelt beside me and wrapped his arms around me and gave me deep squeezes. I got his body brush out and began running it over my arms, legs and body. I knew he was watching me. My head was telling me, You are the example, Sara. Be the example. He is watching you. You might want to just lay here and cry, but do the techniques. They work. My son, this little man in an 8-year-old body, sat silently with me. He must have noticed the calm start to wash over me — he said, “Mama, I’m going to go play. But, Tiegie’s gonna stay here with you. ‘K?”

My son's sensory bin and Tiegie he brought to help calm my brain
My son’s sensory bin and Tiegie he brought to help calm my brain

My brain has been reset now. Not to say the bucket goes back to empty like after a restful night’s sleep. But there’s this weird sensation afterward, a sense of calm that cannot be explained with words. I think of it as my brain doing a hard-restart, like the old-school Control + ALT + Delete when the dreaded blue screen of death occurred on my PC. Or like unplugging the cable box from the wall when it’s not cooperating. Yeah. That’s how my brain feels.

*Yellow Zone: Found in “The Zones of Regulation” by Leah M. Kuypers. We use this curriculum with Jackson at his occupational therapy to describe his emotional state and the expected zone of his activity.

**Australia: Nothing against the country. I’m referring to “Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day” by Judith Viorst. Alexander states he thinks he’ll move to Australia every time he explains another negative aspect of his day.

Note: Anytime I mention my son, Jackson, in a blog post, I read it with him and ask his permission. I ask for his feedback and make necessary changes to make this place be a safe place for him too.

This story originally appeared on

Getty image by Fizkes.

Originally published: March 24, 2021
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