That Just Happened. AKA: The Reality of the Autistic Meltdown

Written in December 2016

Did you ever have one of those days that’s going well and finally think to yourself “yeah, maybe I can do this”, only to have it fall completely apart when you least expect it? As you may know, “well” is a relative term in a household with atypical autism or any other developmental disability, but there are those fleeting moments when you allow yourself to think you might actually have a handle on things. Until you don’t again.

A had an okay day yesterday…that is, until he decided that he wanted to play a computer game with his brother, who unfortunately at the time was already in the middle of doing something else. As you also probably know if you’re on this roller coaster, sometimes redirection works and sometimes it doesn’t. Yesterday it didn’t. Try as I might, I could not convince A that any other activity would do.

And so, he went over the edge. Once that line is crossed – or rather plunged over headfirst – there is no going back. What follows is an exhausting dance

wherein we attempt to contain him, prevent damage and injury to property and people, and talk him back into reality. Sometimes it lasts ten minutes, sometimes it lasts two hours. Last night, it lasted about an hour.

Although it is extremely uncomfortable sharing even this much with the general public, as it’s something I’ve kept hidden for many years – outside of an intimate few – this post is less about the actual physical struggles and more about the aftermath.

The Decision Tree

If you’re raising an autistic or developmentally disabled child, you likely have at least a core set of family and friends who are aware of some of the brutal realities of everyday life. These loved ones probably (hopefully) have compassion for – if not firsthand understanding of – the challenges you face.

What other people may not realize is that every time your child goes into an autistic meltdown, you must effectively go through an assessment – decision – reassessment process. And you must do it under duress.

The series of assessments and decisions isn’t rapid-fire. It’s drawn out over the course of the meltdown. Things that run through a parent’s mind during an autistic meltdown may include:

  • Can I defuse him before he gets violent? If the answer is no…
  • Can I redirect him? No…
  • Can I walk away and let him cool down without threat to people and property? No…
  • Can I safely contain him to prevent harm to people and property? No…
  • Should I call his crisis response team, police, or ride it out?

If you don’t have experience dealing with an autistic meltdown firsthand you may think, particularly considering that I seldom come out of these meltdowns without at least a few new bruises, that calling the police is a no-brainer. While that perspective is certainly understandable, unfortunately it’s not that simple. That’s a whole separate post. For now, I want to stick with the purpose of sharing this very private and gut-wrenching aspect of atypical autism.

If your child suffers from this kind of traumatic, emotionally draining loss of control, you already know that it’s heartbreakingly hard on them. Every DD child is different. Mine experiences guilt and shame following a meltdown, often exhibiting fixing behaviors (picking up thrown items, apologizing to me and siblings, crying and saying he doesn’t want to be a “bad boy”). There’s no question that the person who suffers the most is the child.

But I also want to address the emotions we as parents go through. For me, it’s taken a long damn time to get to the point where I don’t collapse into a sobbing puddle after A goes through a meltdown. And tbh, I still do sometimes.

It’s also taken years to be able to force acceptance on myself. I call it “That just happened.” It’s a phrase I’ve taken to repeating in my head to ward off the temptation to catastrophize the event. Is it a catastrophe? Yes. Is it reality? Yes.

You may also (as I do) go through a succession of destructive emotions – guilt (that you didn’t handle it better), shame (that you couldn’t prevent it/defuse it faster/make it less traumatizing for the entire household), and/or depression (why is this happening to us, what about next time, what does the future hold for my child and family?). These are normal, human emotions. If you’ve managed to find the key to not feeling these things, please, share with me. There’s no such thing as having too many coping tools.

Last night was bad. It was another trip through the dark tunnel. But that just happened. And it happens to other families. You are not alone, and you are not unheard. I hear you, other families going through the same struggles hear you. Even if you don’t know it, we do.

I can’t give you foolproof instructions on how to deal with an autistic meltdown. Hell, I’m still trying to figure it out myself. What I can do is listen, and empathize. Share your story with me, share your feelings, frustrations, even your anger. This blog is for you – you are not alone!