Turning a meltdown inside out

Misbehavior. Outbursts. Tantrums.

All kids are guilty, with a surprising lack of awareness of setting and timing … what politicians and pundits call “the optics.” A can of corn is swept off a supermarket shelf by a kid who doesn’t like riding in the cart. A first-grader decides the first day of school is the first time to try out his push technique coupled with a “Get away from me!” on his new teacher.

Parents get the “control your kid” look from strangers. Or at least that’s how it is feels. And the kids learn just how little (or, worse, just how much) they can get away with.

There is something very different that comes into play with Jewel and other autistic children. Yes, she does the typical testing of boundaries, she’s a kid, after all. But with autistics, the sensory inputs are contorted. What Jewel is seeing at any given time can become blurry or wavy, stationary objects appear to move, she can “taste” what she is smelling, background noise is amplified and reverbs, and she feels “enveloped” by the textures of what surrounds her. There is no tuning out. Because her brain’s connections are wired differently, there’s just too much distorted input.

Think of a fabric store as the ultimate in sensory overload: all those buttons and yarns and bolts of fabrics, all different colors, all different patterns, all different textures, all different smells, rows and rows of black coarse leather next to the multicolored brown fur next to the cowboy-patterned with red background cotton times infinity. Then add in the sound of someone sifting through the beads in the notion department, and someone else humming along to the classic rock on the radio, REO Speedwagon, “Keep on Loving You,” sugary sweet platitudes, while the woman is using rusty scissors to cut beige smelly burlap while smacking her gum. Yep, I’m squirming now too.

When the input gets this “loud” and the different senses get mixed up for Jewel, the overwhelming feeling of loss of control takes over, and her coping skills are forgotten. That’s when the meltdown happens. People on the outside see and hear the screaming, the anger, the loss of control. The “flight or fight” response takes over.

Jewel, a lover more than a fighter, much prefers flight. At school, she elopes out of the classroom to her predetermined “safe” place. In a store, she heads for a dressing room. It took me a long time to realize why: It’s the one place in which the sensory inputs are at a minimum, small, clean and clear of people and things.

Certain things contribute to the sensory overload that leads to true meltdowns for autistics. For example, while neurotypical people filter out the “pulsing” fluorescent lights emit, autistics (and those with ADHD) have difficulty doing so. Waiting in line is also a particular challenge. With no option to leave, they are in a crowd of people with all types of looks and all types of clothes, and there are all types of smells and all types of noises.

A meltdown doesn’t happen every time autistics go into unfavorable or chaotic situations, of course. Sometimes there’s enough front loading, or enough luck, to head one off. It’s not overly hot outside, the kid has a full belly, isn’t extra tired, is in the right, optimistic mood … lots of things come into play. This very unpredictability makes dealing with meltdowns all the harder, because they can come seemingly out of the blue.

But if you dig deeper, you discover they aren’t out of the blue. The triggers were there. They just need to be identified, and then addressed. Transitions to a new task are a challenge, so extra support to make sure the child is sure of the directions and expectations is needed. A teacher casually going up to check whether Jewel is working on the right page in her workbook can head off a potential meltdown. And placing demands on hold can throw a towel over the flames, just as making demands is like adding gasoline.

I can lessen the probabilities of Jewel having a meltdown, but I can’t alter her reality. She will have to cope with a world that sometimes pulses, in which she can “see” lyrics dance around a room, and feel as if she is being rubbed by sandpaper when she sees a certain color. I can empathize but not experience life as she does. And I can help her find her way in this world by using her vantage point to her advantage.


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