I’ve been thinking about meltdowns for a few reasons in the last week or so.
- A PhD student, @lizith, tweeted me asking if I knew of other words for meltdowns. Her supervisor thought it was a colloquial expression and she should use a different word in her thesis.
- A colleague asked if I thought the Louis Theroux ‘Extreme Love‘ documentary was a reasonable portrayal of the more extreme end of the autism spectrum (in particular, the part where the mother flips the son onto the floor and restrains him using her body).
- LB is about to go on school trip again that involves a day trip to France.
I replied to @lizith saying that I thought ‘meltdown’ was a very widely used and understood term by parents of autistic kids. I don’t think I used it myself before I interviewed parents for a project, but their consistent use of it made perfect sense to me. I asked one mother to describe what she meant by it. She replied;
Sometimes you can see the gradual build up, you can see if he has had a particularly bad day because he will sulk and he will be moody and you know that sort of come seven eight o’clock at night you can really be in for it. So then it is trying to distract him and sometimes that works and sometimes it doesn’t. And then he can go up to his bedroom and refuse to go to bed, start throwing things, jumping on his bed, sort of banging on the ceiling. Its – it is like a monster exploding. And it is very unpleasant and twelve months ago he did get very physically violent where sometimes we did have to physically to restrain him and use time out and we did at our previous house sometimes have to lock him in his room and that was on recommendations from one of the specialists at the [hospital]. We didn’t like doing it but there were times when we had to do it for everybody’s safety, but fingers crossed we haven’t had to do that for a while now.
So this extract answers 2. Yes. Parents do have to restrain their children sometimes. And it’s something that isn’t really discussed much or widely known about, which is one of the reasons I liked the Louis Theroux documentary. There is such a complex layering of guilt, despair, isolation and sadness involved in having to physically restrain your child. It seems counter-intuitive to parenting. While the rationale for doing it is largely to protect your child from harm, it’s also very upsetting to be attacked by your child. Intentionally or otherwise.
We had years of meltdowns with LB. I’ve discussed some of them before on this blog. In supermarkets, reversing the car, at home. It was never pretty and occasionally physically painful. It’s also hugely distressing and unsettling for siblings to experience. The extract above captures the unpredictability and helplessness that parents can experience once their child/children tip over into such distress. I can remember psychologists and other professionals suggesting I video a meltdown so they could actually get an idea of what I was describing. (They never offered a scrap of useful support). The thought of videoing his distress was as upsetting as experiencing it firsthand. Professionals should really have a better understanding of meltdowns, and how children, and their parents, experience them.
So to 3. LB has learnt to manage his distress so much more effectively over the years. He can cope with a lot of the things that caused meltdowns when he was younger. He’s done a lot of the learning and groundwork himself really, bless him. Finding his way and negotiating a lot of the stuff that’s thrown at him. His school environment has helped him enormously, and the teachers/TAs’ consistent, affectionate engagement with him. Occasionally though, something unpredictable happens and ‘meltdown’ doesn’t quite capture the horror of what happens in the, for him, adult-like version of it. Like when he was told to take off his shoes by customs officers on his day trip to France last year and he thought they were going to steal them.
I’m glad I wasn’t there on that occasion.
I’d still welcome any sensible advice or suggestions by professionals but I won’t hold my breath.