Tuesday, August 3, 2010


You've all seen tantrums in two-year-olds. A meltdown is to a temper tantrum what a major hurricane is to a gentle rain with occasional gusts of 20 mph wind. There are qualitative differences as well. GL had a meltdown today.

Reasonably good training by a parent or caregiver largely eliminates tantrums in most children before they reach school age. They may still try the tactic on occasion, but strong social disapproval usually extinguishes the behavior even with especially bad training. In children with autism, however, while careful management, hyper-vigilance for triggers, and medication can help reduce the frequency of meltdowns, they cannot eliminate them. This introduces new difficulties as the child grows older and social expectations increase. Picture a 5', 120 lb. 13 yo throwing himself on the floor in the middle of Wal-Mart and throwing what looks like the mother of all tantrums, cubed, and think of the level of social disapproval directed at both the child and his parents. Thankfully, as he has grown, more of GL's meltdowns have happened at home.

When GL was younger, a meltdown would deprive him of the ability to process any form of verbal input. We had a friend studying to be an ASL interpreter, and she came to our house to give the family weekly lessons. Sometimes when he couldn't process speech, he could understand if I signed to him, even if he couldn't sign or speak coherently at the moment. Now he understands most of what people say during a meltdown, but can't respond rationally. Imagine all the anger a 13 yo is capable of, combined with the verbal skills of an 8 yo, and the reasoning of a 2 yo in mid-tantrum. He screams the most inappropriate things he can think of at volumes that can be heard down the block. Things like, "Help! Call 911!" "You're hurting me!" or, like today, "Get off me!" even when there's no one in the room. He also imagines the most bizarre and horrific punishments, and screams, "Don't _____!"

Even at home, with the doors and windows closed, we imagined the neighbors could hear, and worried about what they might be thinking. Today, we found out they could. I had taken the car into town to run some errands, and GL decided it was time to go to the beach. It was not time to go to the beach. We try not to let him dictate our schedule, and when we need to change it to adapt to his needs, we try not to let him get the feeling he is in charge. And with the car gone, Mama Bear couldn't have taken him anywhere if she wanted to. He proceeded to throw a record-breaker, even for him. When the dust had settled and the smoke cleared, there was a sheriff's deputy on our doorstep.

MB explained that GL has autism, and invited him in to meet GL, who by this time had calmed down and more or less forgotten the preceding events. The deputy asked if we knew these neighbors. No, we don't. He asked permission to explain the situation to them, so they wouldn't worry and call the police next time GL has a meltdown. MB agreed. I got home shortly after he left.

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Blogger Life as the mother of 4 said...

I had a child who would scream "You're hurting me!" regardless of how lightly we touched him. It was fabulous. Somehow they just know what to say.

August 15, 2010 at 2:34 PM  
Blogger Accidental Expert said...

What a wonderful post! We often wonder what the neighbors must think of us. The screams that come from our house can be awful sometimes.

I love what the police did. What a great way to diffuse the situation. Maybe its time to knock on their doors and explain the same thing here.

October 4, 2010 at 9:15 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

My child, who admittedly is 2.5, and as yet in early intervention... throws record breakers when she's getting off the bus. Being woken up (most often) and the transition between school and home usually does her in. The later in the week it is, the worse it gets. In the early week, I can usually let her be outside for 10-15 minutes and we're ready to go inside and set up for her home teacher... by Thursday/Friday... not so much. And cold weather doesn't much help.

December 13, 2010 at 5:43 AM  

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