Melting Down the Autistic Meltdown: Sometimes Tantrums aren't Tantrums
The one thing that I hear from parents of autistic children the most is how frustrating their child’s meltdowns are and how humiliating it is that nobody around them seems to understand that meltdowns aren’t indicative of the parenting the child receives. Most of them would agree that the ‘baptism by fire’ of the autistic meltdown is the first true initiation into the life of an autism parent. They are scary, frustrating, and embarrassing at times.
First Things First, A Meltdown is Not the Same Thing as a Temper Tantrum
I have learned through the years that the ‘normal’ person will look at a meltdown and perceive it to be a simple temper tantrum being thrown by a brat who has a parent that can’t control them. Nothing could be further from the truth when it comes to an autistic child. Meltdowns require a great deal of strength from the parents in a lot of cases, they ALWAYS require a massive amount of patience, and without a doubt they require an unheard of amount of love to withstand.
Tantrums are each different according to the child’s style. They are ALWAYS a way to control and to get what they are wanting. Even if it seems the opposite, a child in the midst of a temper tantrum is ALWAYS in control of the situation.
A Child in the Midst of a Tantrum will:
• Use being in a store or at a friend’s house to their advantage
• Occasionally look around themselves to see if anyone is paying attention or reacting to what they are doing
• Throw the tantrum to achieve a goal or obtain a want. As soon as that want is met the tantrum will stop
• Take safeguards to make sure they can’t be hurt during the tantrum
A child having a tantrum is also aware of what is going on throughout the entire tantrum. It isn’t unheard of for a child to change their approach mid-tantrum in order to increase their chances of a positive outcome. My 7 year old ‘typical’ son does this during tantrums and it drives me insane! However, my autistic son has never pulled anything like that in his life.
A child in the midst of an Autistic Meltdown:
- Does NOT look nor do they care to find out if anyone around them is reacting to their meltdown. The behavior isn’t based on everyone around them. It is based on poor impulse control and in a lot of cases if actually caused by sensory issues.
- DOES NOT consider their own safety during the meltdown, they also do not consider the safety of anybody around them
- Meltdowns normally continue like they are moving under their own power and accord. The wind down very slowly on their own time
(Entire lists can be found in my book “Melting Down Meltdowns: When a Tantrum Isn’t a Tantrum” By: Brooke Price)
‘Must Know’ Information about Meltdowns as Learned by a Mother of an Autistic Child
My son has had exceptionally severe meltdowns since he was small. I have had my house destroyed because of a change in routine more times than I can count. I have had my eye socket broke by my son mid-meltdown because of a sensory processing issue. I have fought my son and held my son to protect himself and me on many different occasions. There are countless pointers I could pass on to you that I have learned over the years from research and experience. Too many to list. Here are just a few.
‘Must Know’ Facts about Meltdowns:
- Meltdowns are in fact neurological NOT emotional. They are the result of different configurations in an autistic individual’s brain mixed with hyper-sensitivity of their nerves
- Conventional anger management techniques do not work once a meltdown has started
- Meltdowns are almost NEVER triggered by anger or anxiety, although anxiety can be an contributing factor
- Punishment doesn’t work so your only weapons are compassion, preparation, and distraction.
Parenting an Autistic Child
Parenting an autistic child is like parenting NO other child on this earth. Almost every single one of our children have meltdowns. The severities of the meltdowns don’t so much decide themselves based on the autism severity as they do by age. Different age groups are more prone to having different ways of exhibiting their meltdown behavior. By age 5 my son, Zain, had started having extreme meltdowns. The meltdowns of autistic children this age hold the potential of being epic and can cause serious harm. Learning positions to protect yourself and holds to put your children in to protect them from themselves are 100% necessary in some circumstances.
We have to always be on our guard. We can’t discipline them for their behavior because it is not a temper tantrum, it is a true meltdown that our children cannot help. Your job as the parent is to learn your child’s meltdown triggers and learn how to cope with them by implementing a behavior plan with your spouse and/or anyone else charged with the care of your child.
Discipline and Meltdowns
Spanking is a big No-No when it comes to our children. Do not ever forget that spanking our children is out. I took me a long time to understand why but once I did it was a life altering realization. Autistic children do not possess the skills to understand right from wrong in a large number of cases, therefore when you spank them it is nothing but violence from their point of view. They don’t understand why you hit them (or spanked them rather). They aren’t learning anything from the spanking.
You have to learn that you can not treat your special needs child the same as you would a ‘typical’ child of their age. Most likely they are not the same age cognitively as they are physically. This is such a hard concept to get stuck in your head, I know it was for me. Zain is ten now and I sometimes have a hard time with it still. When you are looking at a 10 year old child, remembering he is only 3 in his head it is hard if only given a seconds thought.
Just try to keep in mind that temper tantrums and punishment are almost always synonymous, meltdowns and punishment are not. A lot of times you need things such as Cognitive Behavioral Therapy or ABA Therapy to help teach your child how to cope with their own emotions and how to work their way thru their own meltdowns. Perhaps the answer isn’t discipline to start with. Perhaps the answer to your problem with your child is a treatment of a co-morbid disorder. Chances are all the answers to the stresses you are feeling as a result of your child’s behavior are just one simple doctor’s appointment away.
Also read Piecing the Puzzle Back Together: Tips from a Mom of an Autistic Child, by Brook Price.