Children with Autism tend to be highly strung emotionally, there are certain situations where they find themselves incapable of coping with the world around them, placing them under duress. Should this duress continue for a period of time and interrupt the delicate and serene balance of the child’s daily life, (usually the time is indefinite, it can happen in seconds, or minutes) it can often result in a meltdown.
An Autistic meltdown is both vociferous and physical. Initially the child will seek to shelter itself from the situation, by refusing to talk and hide its visage. If the situation continues, the child will then begin to wail and grunt continuously oft alongside an array of tears, should the situation still not resolve itself, the child will then become both vocally and physically aggressive. In my experience, the duration of a meltdown can vary between minutes and hours, and there is no set rhyme nor reason as to what can trigger an Autistic meltdown.
Previously I have discussed Autism from a parental perspective and the challenges faced, in this instance, I will elaborate on the emotional effects of a meltdown, initially from the child’s perspective, and then from the parent’s perspective.
Child: A meltdown for the child as I describe above goes through a variety of actions. Initially, the child will seek to remove itself from the situation, normally via hiding his or her face, and a refusal to communicate. This attempt to hide and converse about the situation is the child’s attempt to remove itself from the situation at hand, and a refusal to acknowledge it, with the hope that should they merely ignore to address it and hide, that the situation itself will either resolve itself to a more favourable solution or disappear altogether.
The next phase is the grunting and wailing phase, is phase is a clear sign of the distress and frustration of the child, which causes it to clearly voice its displeasure over the situation. A refusal to communicate is once again prevalent in this situation, though instead of silence, grunting is the favoured choice. Often the wailing will be accompanied by tears, the child here is in clear emotional distress, and whilst not in full meltdown or panic, the child does not feel secure enough to be able to give voice to his distress, nor respond to any prompt or communication.
Should the situation continue, then the aggressive and visceral part of the meltdown begins. The child here is in full emotional distress and in a panic. Survival mode enters the equation and the child enters a state of mind where it clearly wants to remove itself from the situation but is in such a blind panic and has lost full control of his or her emotions, that it has begun to violently and aggressively lash out at anything that is in close proximity. The aggressive phase of the meltdown usually involves a lot of aggressive shouting, and violence towards others and towards the surrounding area. It is not uncommon for the child to physically strike anyone in the vicinity or indeed throw any inanimate object within reach across the room.
The aim of the child here is not to harm anyone, or even intimidate anyone, but rather the child is hoping that their distress is visible and that no harm will come to them in any way. Due to being unable to comprehend or handle their emotions in this situation, they react in the only manner they know that they can express their extreme displeasure at the situation, as they try to desperately seek reassurance and comfort.
The final phase of a meltdown consists of more grunting and tears though in a more calmed manner. The child will return to hide its face from others whilst being comforted, again this is merely to remove itself from the situation whilst it begins to gain control of its emotions and return to normality, to a serene and balanced state.
Meltdowns for an Autistic child are a traumatic experience, despite the appearances of the meltdown, they are in no possible way trying to be disobedient, violent or cause any pain at all. The child has no desire to be unruly or make things stressful for those around them, they merely wish to make sense of their emotions, of their surroundings and to regain control of the matters at hand. Unfortunately, for children with Autism, they lack the ability to be able to express themselves vocally or emotionally like we would, causing frustration and anger to build it, which in turn causes them to become even more upset at the situation and leads to a meltdown.
Parent: Meltdowns for the parent of an autistic child can be equally distressing, though in far different manner. Initially you try to assuage the situation and calm the child, usually if successful during the initial meltdown phase, you can avoid a meltdown altogether. This stage can be the most confusing and frustrating as a parent, since due to the variance and even minute causes of a meltdown, it can be hard to discover exactly what has caused the upset and gain an understanding of the current situation.
In the wailing and grunting phase, the confusing still reigns whilst you try to comfort the child. Once again you try to communicate with the child to find the cause of upset, but with nothing more than grunts and wails coming out, it can be quite frustrating, not so much at the child, but within yourself because of the inability to be able to do anything to rectify the situation.
The violent phase of the meltdown is the one that is the most emotionally and physically exhausting. These are the moments when you feel the most useless as a parent, where you know that no matter what you do, you simply cannot comfort your child. There is nothing more saddening as a parent than knowing that you cannot bring comfort to your child or do anything to alleviate their distress, and it often does lead to tears.
Concern is also a part of this phase, especially as the child becomes violent, since you have to ensure that the child does not harm itself, or others. As aforementioned above, the frustration for the parent has already been building up for a while, and added to the sadness felt during this phase, has often lead to me questioning my abilities as a parent. There is nothing more heartbreaking than seeing your child so distress and yet be as useful as an ice block in the North Pole, and you just begin to hope, that you can find a way to temper the meltdown so you can begin to comfort your child as soon as possible.
During the final phase, this is where relief begins to kick in, as now you are in a position to calm and comfort your child, to fulfil your role as a parent, and to be able to help your child in its hour of need. Towards the end of this phase, it is also infinitely easier to communicate with your child and begin to understand the cause of the meltdown, as well as to assuage the fears of the child and remedy the situation at hand.
Whilst I understand that this may be a basic explanation as to what both the child and the parent goes through emotionally during an Autistic meltdown, the truth is, there are insufficient words to accurately describe the plethora of emotions that you go through when dealing with a meltdown, at least from a parental perspective. As for the perspective of the child, it is hard to explain the emotions the child is going through, especially when the child itself does not quite understand the variety of emotions it has gone through.
Please note that this description is purely a description of the meltdowns that I myself have experienced with my child, emotions and the type of meltdowns can vary. My child is at the stage of development wherein he is unable to understand his emotions and lacks the words to express them, therein making the situation altogether more complex. I’m certain that wherein the age arrives that he is able to explain his emotions vocally, both his and my understanding of the situation will increment and perhaps find a way to avoid the meltdowns, or at least find a manner in which the situation can be remedied.
My understanding of Autism and meltdowns come purely from my own experiences as the parent of an Autistic child, and not from a professional understanding. Though I have vigorously researched Autism, nothing has been able to prepare me for a meltdown. There are times where I fail completely in being able to address and understand the matter at hand, and there are times where I surprise myself at how quickly I was able to put my child’s mind at rest. The reason for these Autism based blogs lately is to provide an insight and understanding of Autism and how it affects both the child and those around it.
My desire with this series of Autism blogs is to help others in a similar situation myself to understand just what they and their child are going through, and for them to understand that as parents, they are doing great, that they should not question their abilities, but merely try to understand that this is a condition like any other, and that both the child and the family, have to learn to comprehend it, and deal with it in a manner that is beneficial to the child, in order for them to be able to develop into the bright young stars that lie within.