It’s never just a sandwich.
As an adult on the spectrum and a mother of children with autism, I am often asked about meltdowns and how they feel. I can tell you how it feels to have a meltdown from my perspective and how to help your child.
When you have a meltdown, it’s as if the world is ending. Everything is too much and you feel like an overwhelming darkness has engulfed your very being. Irrepressible anger that may seem completely irrational to an outsider can be inwardly devastating us internally.
When your child suddenly explodes because their sandwich has been cut at the wrong angle or another child has won a game, or even because they have been jostled in line, it’s the catalyst. It’s the last straw on the camel’s back. It’s not the sandwich, necessarily; it’s a build-up of things that may have happened during the day or even previous days. That sandwich was the last thing they could control and once that erred, their world crumpled. The last bit of control over their universe disappeared.
Smashing, ripping and throwing might be involved in an angry meltdown, as well as self-injurious behaviors to display outwardly the pain they’re experiencing internally.
How do I know this? Because it can take me missing throwing something into the bin or my PIN failing to go into my online banking properly and I will puddle, literally explode/implode and sob like my heart will break. It will be because of a build-up of things, and frustration will be the reason.
There’s also the depressive meltdown, the one that makes you feel like you’re nothing, worthless, and like the world would be a better place without you.
There’s no rationalizing with someone in either of these meltdowns. If you tell us it’s OK, it’s not. You are trivializing our distress and it will make us worse. “Stop” or “Get a grip” are also triggers, because we would if we could; no one wants to feel this way.
If your child is self-injuring, guide the hands down to a firm surface to hit.
If they are biting, grab a chewy or clean washcloth for them to fasten onto; they may need to feel the pressure of the bite to ground them, so wind a cloth around their hand so they can bite their hand without breaking the skin. If they head-butt, get crash mats and a safety helmet. A weighted blanket works well to help regulate, as does a weighted body warmer. Offer these if you see a meltdown is on its way.
Rumbling is a sure sign, or pacing up and down or verbalising aggressively , so redirect to a safe, quiet area, if possible.
If you are out and a meltdown occurs, the child may run. This is because we literally need to get away to somewhere quiet and sense of danger will fly out the window. If you need to restrain your child and get them somewhere safe ,do so. Print off a few cards detailing your relationship to your child and the fact they have autism and are having difficulties coping, as the sight of an adult carrying or holding down a screaming, struggling child can be mistaken as abduction.
If your child has violent reactions before school or after, it’s more likely anxiety and frustration at not being able to communicate what’s happening. Sensory overload is also a massive trigger. The school should be making accommodations for your child, like sensory breaks and allowing the use of ear defenders, tinted lenses and a chewy if needed. Check that your child is not being bullied, as they may not even realize that you don’t know that they are and may feel resentful toward you for taking them.
It’s never just a sandwich.
Lastly, only restrain your child if they are a danger to themselves or others, as a touch can feel like an electric shock and may cause them to strike out with a fight-or-flight mechanism.
Too often I see posts on Facebook and articles by parents moaning how terrible it is to cope with a meltdown and how hard it is for them; they have no idea how hard a meltdown is.
It’s about your child and how bad they are feeling. Please don’t punish or berate your child for how they have reacted, as its not willful or even conscious. Maybe they even blanked out completely, as in a full-blown meltdown. This can happen, too, leaving us bewildered at the devastation around us.
A cool drink and dark room, as well as clear, short sentences, will all help.
Remember, there’s more to it then a sandwich.
Originally published as What a meltdown feels like for someone with Autism at The Mighty