Yesterday my Facebook Memories reminded me of this moment in our lives:
Pitiful, isn’t it?? No mama likes to see her child crying, and some may think it’s mean to take a picture of your child crying, but I took it to document a time in our lives that was hard- the photographer in me just couldn’t help it.
You see, in this picture, Sawyer was having a meltdown. A meltdown is different from a tantrum, even though to those who don’t have a special needs child it looks very similar. Before I had Sawyer, I thought if a kid was jumping up and down, pulling at their own hair or smacking themselves, they just needed some discipline for “throwing a fit”. I’d see kids in the grocery store or Walmart doing these types of things and immediately pass judgement on the parent, thinking “Well if they would teach that kid to act right, they wouldn’t be in this situation right now.” Now I laugh and shake my head at how ignorant I was.
Yes, a lot of kids have tantrums. In fact, I would bet that every single person who has ever had a child has experienced one at some point. Hell, even adults have tantrums- I’ve been guilty of having one a time or two, myself. Ever “lose your shit” because you got really upset about something? Congrats- you just had an adult tantrum. 😉 A kid doesn’t get that toy they want at the store, or they get mad because they can’t have a candy bar before dinner, and they throw a fit and start screaming, crying, and acting out. The reason for their behavior is easily identifiable because there’s a clear cause, and usually once they get what they wanted, they stop.
A meltdown is different. There is usually no clear cause for a meltdown, because it is caused by overstimulation to external stimuli. What that stimuli is may not be easily identifiable. It could be because the noise in an environment is too loud, or the way a certain fabric feels on the skin, or a smell that’s irritating- or even a combination of factors. If you’re not paying attention to your child closely, you may not even see it coming on and then all of a sudden you’re dealing with a screaming, crying, and aggressive little person and you’re as confused as anyone as to why it’s happening and how to make it stop.
Meltdowns are like slow moving category five hurricanes. Their damage is done through a variety of factors: wind, rain, tornadoes, floods, lightning, and hail. Autistic meltdown symptoms can be catastrophic and cause damage to property, our precious children, and ourselves. In addition to the ones mentioned above, these symptoms can include:
- violent behavior
- willful behavior, purposely doing things that they shouldn’t
- self harm, headbanging, scratching, pinching
- intentionally or unintentionally hurt others, including animals
- running away, also known as eloping
- destroying or damaging property, on purpose or accidentally
The picture I shared above is a glimpse of a meltdown in our lives. I have no idea what caused it that day; during that stage of Sawyer’s life, his speech was still very limited, so a lot of the time he couldn’t communicate what he wanted or needed from me. I just remember that meltdown that day, and how my sweet boy turned into an angry, violent version of himself and I cried with him as he crumbled to the ground in our bathroom floor after running headfirst into the door to hurt himself. From the time he was 2 until about 5, we dealt with meltdowns on a semi-regular basis. At first, I didn’t know how to spot them, but as time went on, I began to see the signs leading up to a meltdown and trained myself to head them off.
Sawyer’s signs of an approaching meltdown were that he would usually get really hyper and overly excited for about 15-20 minutes. He’d start running around, giggling and flapping his hands excitedly. Then, he would start to calm down and zone out for small periods of time. I’d catch him staring off into space, usually breathing heavily from his running; it would last a few seconds and then he’d snap out of it. The final step was that he would go find a place away from people and draw into himself; he would squat and pull his arms in, I’m guessing in an effort to calm himself down. If I didn’t notice him doing these things, the meltdown would begin. He’d scream and cry, and lash out at anyone who came near him. He’d throw things or destroy things around him, and any attempt to calm him down or talk to him was greeted with screams and slaps, and then self harm. When he was smaller, he would smack himself in the head, but when he turned 3, he started running full force into walls, counters, etc. to slam his head into them. It was terrifying; I was constantly worried he was going to seriously hurt himself, and I’m so blessed that he never did.
Sawyer’s meltdowns were usually over within 5-10 minutes. However, there was one particularly scary one he had at Walt Disney World when he was 3 years old- it’s still the worst one I’ve ever seen him have, and it left me scared and in tears. We were in Animal Kingdom, and there is a playground there called The Boneyard, which is designed to look like a prehistoric dig site. There are tons of awesome places to run, climb, and play, and at the end of the playground is a big sandbox where kids can “dig for dinosaur bones” using shovels and little brushes to uncover fake bones under the sand. Sawyer and Caitlyn were playing in the sandbox, having an amazing time digging, and I realized we had a FastPass to ride a ride that was all the way across the park from where we were. I had already learned by then that any change in routine or schedule should be prefaced with an announcement to let Sawyer know we were about to change activities. I said “Sawyer, you get 5 more minutes and then we have to go.” He ignored me, and continued playing. Soon, it was time to go so we wouldn’t miss our Fast Pass. I told Sawyer we had to go, and again he ignored me. I reached down to pick him up and all hell broke loose. He immediately started kicking and screaming, crying and smacking at my face. I looked to my left and saw a small gate reserved for employees and asked the Disney World employee standing next to it if we could please go through it. She apologized and said we would have to go back the way we came in- all the way back through the maze of bridges and tunnels we walked through to get to the end of the play area. Great.
I held Sawyer tightly, trying my best to keep him from hurting me or the children around us as I carried him back through the maze. Caitlyn walked ahead of us and asked people to move out of our way as we walked against the flow of “traffic” back out to the entrance where my husband, mom, and oldest daughter, Emily, were waiting for us. They saw us coming and my husband tried to take Sawyer from me to put him in the stroller, but Sawyer tensed his entire body so that he was rigid and we couldn’t bend his limbs enough to get into the stroller. At this point, I was terrified; I had never seen Sawyer have this kind of meltdown before. He was crying harder than I’d ever seen, and he began trying to bite us as we struggled to put him in the stroller. My mom held the stroller still as my husband and I struggled to calm Sawyer and get him into the stroller. I was crying, my husband was yelling and asking me what happened, and my mom and the girls looked on in terror and confusion as they watched the whole thing unfold. People were staring, pointing and laughing, and my girls angrily yelled at people to stop laughing at their brother. It took us probably 10 full minutes of struggling to get him into the stroller before he finally gave in and allowed us to bend his limbs to get him seated. By the time we got him strapped in, he had calmed down; within 2 minutes of being in the stroller, he passed out, having exhausted himself from all the fighting. I remember my mom hugging me to comfort me, as my husband tried to calm the girls down. We were all completely shaken up; that was the first time Sawyer had ever been that violent, and as we walked across the park to make our FastPass appointment, I remember silently thinking “My God… If this is what his meltdowns are like as a toddler, how are they going to be when he’s a teenager?” When we got to the other ride, Sawyer woke up and my sweet boy was back; it was like the meltdown had never happened.
We’ve been very lucky over the years that meltdowns have been few and far between the older Sawyer gets. He’s 9 now, and he understands better how to calm down when he gets upset. He’s old enough now to tell me when he starts getting overstimulated; we’ve left many events early because the noise was too much, or the lights were too bright, or it was all just too much at one time. He’ll tell me “Mom, I’m getting overwhelmed” and I know that’s my cue to take him home. As he gets older, he’s getting better and better at self soothing, or stimming, though, and we’ve actually managed to make it through some of my nephew’s basketball games this season without having to leave early. It’s progress, and we make sure to celebrate those “little” wins; the first time Sawyer was able to sit through an entire basketball game without having to leave, we went for ice cream afterwards to celebrate. 😉
Next time you see a child “acting out” in public, I ask you to please think before you pass judgement. Before you think the parents aren’t doing their job, or a kid is just a bad kid, give them the benefit of the doubt. Things are not always as they seem, and I wish I had had someone in my life that could have told me that years ago.