Friday 29th May, 2020
One of the most frustrating things when you're parenting a child with autism is for another parent or adult to say they understand, their child has tantrums too. It is hard to put into words what a meltdown looks like. I've decided to outline two from my own memory and then talk a bit about the emotional impact on you, as the parent.
The first one I remember distinctly was when G was playing with a bucket of leaves in the back garden. One of the leaves fell behind the bench and through a wired fence and so it was impossible to get it. G became beside herself. Right, she's tired, I thought. So I took her up to the bedroom, hoping she'd calm down there. But she wanted that leaf. So I changed tack and went downstairs to get her another leaf, hoping she'd think it was the original. But G knew it wasn't the same leaf and nothing could calm her down. I still remember this being one of the first alarm bells that went off in my mind. I remember thinking it wasn't typical, it wasn't 'normal'. I think she eventually fell asleep on the bed after crying for a l-o-n-g time.
The next one I remember distinctly was after my little boy was born. I think he was about 3 months, so G was nearly two and a half by this time. A friend had been round for the afternoon and had left about 3ish, at which point I knew I must get upstairs and G to bed, since she didn't cope without her nap. Anyway, I can't remember the exact series of events but what I do remember is G repeatedly trying to do something in the bathroom - involving climbing up onto the toilet, in an unsafe way - and whatever it was she couldn't do it. If I tried to help her, she became more hysterical. If I took her into her bedroom, she got even worse. I remember phoning my lovely next-door neighbour because I was so distressed. I was almost in tears at this point. Eventually... G fell asleep, from exhaustion, sitting on the toilet. Looking back, two things strike me: it was impossible to be flexible with her routine and she absolutely could not cope with having a nap two hours after her usual time and, secondly, she couldn't put into words what she wanted.
A meltdown is not a tantrum. A meltdown is when a child who has gone absolutely beyond their ability to regulate their emotions and cannot, cannot come back from that. The most helpful thing I ever learned is that a meltdown is not a tantrum. This is very important to hold onto if/when your child has a meltdown in a supermarket and you feel all eyes on you, increasingly mortified.
I want to add how emotionally distressing a meltdown is for the parent. It's impossible to put into words what it's like. I've often wished someone could watch some CCTV footage of what I was dealing with, to understand what often felt like an absolutely intolerable situation. It can take a while to 'bounce back' from a child's meltdown. As some parents said at a parent support evening, your child can be perfectly fine an hour or so after their meltdown, while it can take you 2-3 days to recover! I think the fact is you try to stay so calm during the meltdown that all the emotion comes out later, much like a child on the spectrum keeping all their feelings bottled up during the day, then coming home after nursery and exploding.
So my advice is this: give yourself breaks, take the pressue off yourself in any area of your life that you can, know that dealing with a child on the spectrum takes an enormous amount of energy and patience and that you need to build up reserves, whatever it takes for you to do that.
You are not alone!