Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Q&A- Meltdowns, Tantrums, and Shutdowns from an autistic perspective

I have received two very important questions regarding meltdowns. The first one was from a few weeks ago when I said I'd do some video type of blogging on my FB page, and the other was via email. I do think that I may be able to cover more material in a quicker way if I were to do a video, but I am not up to it at the moment for a variety of stress, and health related reasons. Sometimes, it is nice to use chatting as a way to convey a large quantity of info more efficiently, but sometimes I just can't get the words out verbally, so typing is what I have to do.

The first question I have received is:

"How do you tell the difference between a meltdown and a tantrum?"

I have thought long and hard about this one. The short, and quick answer is there isn't one.

Let me explain.

My philosophy is with kids in general is that they typically do the best with the skills they have. Every behavior is a way of communicating something. Today's world seems so hellbent on forcing children into complying. It seems that the better behaved one's kids are the more effective you are regarded by others as a parent. I find that this is erroneous, and based on a belief system that all kids are here to fit our molds, and not have days where they are human with their own needs. Plus, it's often that we are only judged on what people might see in public for a short time, which says virtually nothing about the way we conduct most of our lives behind the scenes.

What I find most often with autistic kids is that a tantrum almost always turns into a meltdown due to the overwhelming emotions that come with a meltdown. With both of my boys it seems that not getting something they wanted might spark a tantrum, but quickly moves into a meltdown where even if I were to give in to what they wanted initially it would not matter. They suddenly cannot be calmed by anything. I do see that in a desperate attempt to not even go there in the first place many parents of ASD kids will just not ever say no to begin with out of fear of the impending meltdown. That is also not a desirable way to deal with the situation. Kids need to be taught how to handle strong emotions when they arise, and they can't practice if they never get the chance.

Equally, as important... don't say no, then stick to it with veracity to prove your point if your kid cannot handle that situation. Sometimes, we don't know if they can handle it, or they want something that is impossible to give. If they're already seeming vulnerable I try not to even get into situations that might cause a tantrum/meltdown. Like, I know that Beans cannot handle walking past the pool while it is open, and not going. That is beyond his ability to comprehend, so I make sure to avoid the pool area while on foot. Once I say no to something I mean no, and will not go back, but I try to be sure I mean NO before I say it. If I can avoid certain situations that I don't think the boys have the emotional skills to handle I will, instead opting to work on building up to those challenging situations.

The very, very worst thing that one can do is not ever try little situations that might give a child the ability to be successful in handling the situation, thus they never learn how to manage their emotions. An example I see a lot is parents that say they never go out to eat, or virtually leave the house with their autistic child. This is not doing anyone any favors in the long run. This all or nothing thinking leaves the autistic child with no exposure to the outside world, and no opportunity to learn in small steps how to behave, and handle oneself in public.I know that it can be difficult, awkward, embarassing, and even unsafe if you have a runner, but if done in small enough steps it can be done. I take all of my kids with me to the grocery store, and to restaurants alone, and it is usually fine. We didn't get there overnight. This took years of work to get the point my boys can behave in places like restaurants,and other public places. I wrote a short tutorial about this HERE

Question two: What are shutdowns?

This question was a hard one to answer. I don't really know how to describe them, but I will try.

What do they look like:

I can answer this for myself. I don't know how universal my symptoms are for shutdowns. For me, I begin to feel overwhelmed, physically, mentally, or emotionally. Then, I start feeling really tired. I might yawn a lot, and start slumping in my chair, almost seeming like I can't hold my body up anymore.

Everything starts looking faded, and moving in slow motion. My brain starts shutting down one sense at a time, maybe all of them, or possibly only one, or two, ect... All incoming information seems to get stuck in my brain. I can't decipher much, if anything at all. I am told my face goes blank. I am just nowhere at that moment.

What I find that happens more often than not, is that I get into a state of almost shutdown due to feeling overwhelmed, and I just stay in the limbo state. I am not able to check out fully due to the safety of my kids, especially Beans, who needs constant supervision. I just kind of sit in that tired, half on, half off state, which can last a few days, at times. I find that depressive type of symptoms often accompany my shutdowns. I don't think this is a universal thing, but it does occur with me. I just get to the point where I am tired, and I have exceeded my human limit. This is to be expected running a household as chaotic as mine can be. There's not a single family member that does not have a special need of some sort, and I am the one who is in charge of managing everything, so there are times where my brain says... "Nope. If you cannot stop I will make you stop" And, it does.

Shutdowns can also be a safe way of melting down when one cannot afford the consequences of an outward meltdown. I know as a child meltdowns were seen as tantrums, and not tolerated. I would get punished, so I learned to shutdown instead. I find this pretty common among females on the spectrum.

It is not without consequence, though. I liken shutdowns to the physical action of holding your pc's button in forcing it to shutdown while still running tasks. We all know it is bad for the computer, and can result in permanently damaging it. The same with a person. Stifled meltdowns can turn into PTSD.

An example of this would be the way my son, Bubby has issues with having the executive functioning skills to complete some of his school work. It was thought that he was just a spoiled child throwing a fit on the daily by school staff, and they treated him as such. Over time, he would just begin to shut down, because melting down usually was ignored. His needs were never tended to, and he would be unable to complete assignments. Not only was he unable to complete some of them due to very real issues related to his disability, but he lost all confidence to even try. His brain would be overcome by extreme anxiety at the sight of a worksheet, and shutdown would commence. This was not healthy, and it spilled out causing him to have anxiety, and lack confidence in other areas of his life as well. When you have a verbal child who suddenly keeps trying to lay their head down while repeating phrases like "I can't do it" and  just looking limp people assume they're being lazy. Not true. Shutdowns are very real. The same with nonverbal children. I have seen where a teacher/therapist/parent forces their will onto a nonverbal child. The kid is fighting, and not wanting to do the task, or 'attend' (what they call it). Suddenly, the child goes limp, and seems to comply. The adult thinks that they have won. No. They have forced the child to operate beyond their brain's capacity, and forced the child to shutdown their system. It is not desirable. It is not teaching. It is abuse. I will not even mince words about it. I find it to be abusive to exert one's will over another individual in such a manner that you cause their brain to literally break away.

To sum up this entry I would like to share a song that embodies what it feels like to be to have a shutdown. The lyrics are in this video. If you watched the movie you know that next comes the song about the show must go on. It is quite representative to me what having a meltdown feels like.


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