The following was written last year on July 31, 2020. I thought it might be worth sharing.
People often mistake a meltdown for a tantrum. There is a great difference between the two and they must be handled differently.
A tantrum is a child not getting what they want and screaming and kicking and such because he/she is mad. The tantrum is a behavior that can be disciplined. A child can be taught that it is not okay to get upset when you are told no.
A meltdown is a completely different animal.
First, what is the trigger.
The trigger could be a sensory overload.
Autistic kids can be very sensitive to things we would never imagine. This sensitivity can result in actual pain for the child. And a child with autism often cannot communicate what is wrong. They are in pain and have no way out. The result is a meltdown. In this case, if the child is removed from the situation that is causing the sensory issue, the meltdown will likely subside.
I remember one time we stopped at a Cracker Barrel to eat. Cara wasn’t even out of the van before she was melting down. We couldn’t even get across the parking lot she was so upset. When we got back in the van, the meltdown subsided. We realized that Cracker Barrel was a sensory nightmare for Cara with the overloaded store and the dining room that is so loud you can barely hear yourself think. Cara had no way to verbally tell us this so she did the only thing she could do.
The trigger could be a tantrum.
Autistic kids do throw tantrums just like typical kids. One of the challenges is figuring out which one you are dealing with. And even if you do determine it is a tantrum, it may not be long until it turns into a meltdown. The child becomes frustrated with the situation. They don’t understand what you are trying to communication. Whatever it is, at some point, the child forgets what they were upset about and are just upset because they are upset. Now you are no longer dealing with a tantrum. You are dealing with a meltdown. And the child may wind themselves up pretty good
The trigger can be physical pain or even being tired.
Once again, the autistic child lacks the ability to verbalize that something is wrong. They may not even know how to get someone’s attention. Walking up to someone and asking for help has always been a huge impediment for Cara. Frustration builds and turns into a meltdown.
When well-meaning (or sometimes busybodies) people stop to try to help, many times they try to approach the situation as if it were a typical kid having a tantrum. They want to give advice on how discipline the child. Treating an autistic child having a meltdown like a typical kid throwing a tantrum will likely only make the situation worse. It is also very hurtful to the parent to have their parenting questioned by someone with no knowledge of the situation.
Parents of autistic children can be plagued with self-doubts. I don’t have the training for this. I don’t have the background for this. I have never met an autistic child before and now I have to raise one. Am I doing this right? Should I make things more structured at home or should I give her the space to just relax after school? Am I missing something? The thoughts can run on and on.
I remember two situations where Cara had a meltdown in public and someone stepped in to help. They were handled in completely opposite ways and had opposite outcomes.
One was at a museum. A large aviation museum. Cara was stressed. She wanted to just play on the playground while the rest of us wanted to see the museum. Additionally, the building was very large and hangar-like so it had a kind of sound pattern that Cara finds upsetting. By the time we sat down for lunch, Cara had had it and let us know – with a meltdown. It was decided that Rick would take Cara to the van while Josie and I finished the museum. Then I would sit with Cara so Rick could finish the museum. (This is not an uncommon way of doing things for us.) As Rick was trying to wrangle Cara through the crowd that had formed, an elderly lady stopped him and asked to speak to Cara. Thinking she might know something about autism, he set Cara down. The lady leaned down and started to “scold” Cara for making so much noise when people were trying to hear someone speaking. From a distance I could see the very moment Rick turned angry. He scooped up Cara and continued to the van. Of course, I didn’t find out what the encounter was about until much later.
I daresay, though, even if I had a “typical” child throwing a tantrum, I would likely be very angry if someone did that to my child.
The second incident occurred as we were leaving an amusement park. The meltdown had started in the part (that story will be told elsewhere). We had finally gotten on our way out. However, there was an incredibly long walk from the entrance of the part to the parking lot. And I was forced to leave my borrowed motorized scooter at the park entrance. As we were walking, Cara finally had had enough. She sat down on the pavement, crying, and took her shoes off. I wondered if her shoes were hurting her feet, but I had no way to get this information from her. We needed her to put her shoes on so we could get out of there! But Cara was not putting those shoes on. An older lady came over to talk to us and to Cara. She proved to be a blessing as she worked with autistic kids. She was able to get Cara in her shoes and on her feet and heading out of the park. She walked with us all the way to the entrance of the garage. At that moment, to me, she was an angel sent by God. I didn’t know how we were going to get Cara out of there. She was just too big to carry. And this wonderful lady somehow talked to my Cara in a way that calmed Cara. It was amazing to watch.
Cara’s meltdowns are quite often due to the fact that she cannot communicate her wants and needs. She becomes frustrated and communicates in the only way she knows. One of the toughest aspects of Cara’s meltdowns is they are so incredibly unpredictable. Something she is fine with one day can be a trigger the next day. We just never know what is going to upset her. And this has led to all kinds of interesting situations.