Sunday, September 20, 2009

Autistic Meltdown 101

Most of you have heard me use the term "meltdown" to describe what happens when Wyatt becomes overstimulated, but it just occurred to me that I've never really explained what a meltdown is like. I know the general assumption is that it's comparable to a tantrum, and in some ways it is, but there are also significant differences. So, to give you some insight into what behavior issues are like to deal with for the parent of a child with autism, I'm going to do something I haven't done before. I'm going to try and describe what goes on when Wyatt has a meltdown.

To really understand this, you have to understand that for autistic people, the normal filters don't work properly. Their senses are overly acute, with the most severely autistic it's most or all of the senses, for Wyatt it's primarily his hearing. Imagine being in a crowded mall around the holidays - music blaring, bright colors everywhere, lights flashing, smells coming at you from every direction, noise, being jostled feeling encroached upon by touch, scent, sound and sights. It's overwhelming, right? Now imagine living with this every waking moment of every day. This is what the world is like for someone with autism.

Part of the reason that autistics shut down is as a coping mechanism to deal with the constant sensory assault. With Wyatt, I've spent years gradually increasing his exposure to sensory input, in order to desensitize him to it, and it's worked pretty well. There are times though when he's getting more input than he can handle, and that's when the meltdowns occur.

When Wy has a meltdown, he becomes very anxious and agitated. he'll start stimming - hand flapping, walking in circles, covering his ears, sometimes he'll rock. He gets a very worried expression on his face, his voice gets higher and louder, his arm movements get very spastic, and his speech changes.

Wyatt's made amazing progress with his speech, but when he's in meltdown mode, he regresses to where he was about 3 years ago. He'll give out occasional original sentences, but most of his speech will be lines repeated verbatim from movies, cartoons or video games. The thing is, even though he's repeating dialogue, he uses phrases that express what he's feeling at the moment. He'll say things like "It's all my fault, I'm broken, somethings wrong with me, I'm a monster, I don't deserve to have friends".

It's heartbreaking to me, to hear this beautiful little boy say these things about himself. It's also hard to see how other people react to him when he gets like this. I love my mother dearly, and she adores Wyatt, but when he's having a meltdown, she just has no patience for him. My father does better with him, my father is far more patient by nature. Other people, people that don't know him will stare, yell at him, tell me he needs to be punished or spanked. None of which is going to help.

What I've found works best with him, is to remove him from the situation, take him somewhere quiet, and just wait it out. There's no point trying to reason with him, because it's just going to prolong things. So I sit, I hug him if he'll let me, rock him if he can stay still that long, and just try to reassure him that it's ok, and that he'll calm down soon. Sometimes I can distract him, but more often than not it's a waiting game. When he's calmed down enough to talk, we'll talk about what happened, what triggered the episode, and try and come up with ways that he can cope better next time. Sometimes it works, sometimes it'll just set him off again.

What I DON'T do, is let him use the meltdown as a way to get off the hook for bad behavior. If he did or said something he needs to apologize for, once he's calmed, I make him apologize. His autism is part of who he is, but it's not a free pass for him to act like a brat, and I make sure he knows this. Just because he's autistic doesn't mean he doesn't have to be polite, use good manners, or behave himself in public.

Usually it takes him about 45 min to go from full blown meltdown, to crying, to calming down and then back to himself. That may sound like a long time to you, but believe me, it's better than the 2-3 hours it was 6 years ago, many of which included him getting so wound up he threw up. Back then, meltdowns used to happen almost once a day. Now it's maybe once or twice a month, sometimes longer.

I know once he hits early puberty, there may very well be an increase in the meltdowns, but I'm hoping that by then, he'll have internalized enough coping mechanisms to be able to recognize when one is coming, and stop it early.

So that was your lesson in meltdown behavior. Any questions?

1 comment:

Scott Robinson said...

Wow; maybe I had enough exposure to autism when I worked in special ed that this seems obvious to me, but I am startled that people would actually say those things--that he needs a spanking/punishment, etc. That's shocking.

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