Our Autism Story – Day 10 – “Meltdowns”
Many people with autism (including Brahm) have meltdowns. Most people confuse a meltdown as a temper tantrum, but they are two different things. A meltdown is “intense response to overwhelming situations”. During a meltdown, an autistic person will lose behavioral control by being completely overwhelmed by their current situation. Examples of loss of behavior control can be expressed verbally (ex. screaming, crying, etc.), physically (ex. hitting, biting, scratching, etc.) and/or both verbal and physical. During a temper tantrum, the individual is seeking a reaction to their behavior. During a meltdown, the individual is not looking for a reaction from anyone else, but rather doesn’t have control over their body.
Brahm has meltdowns both inside and outside of our home. He typically has at least a few meltdowns at home each day, and we are guaranteed a meltdown in public if we stay out long enough. Brahm’s meltdowns can last from 5 minutes to over an hour. Brahm typically loses his language during a meltdown. He will scream, try to destroy everything around him, and become extremely physical to himself and others.
When Brahm has a meltdown, we (Nick and Kelly) are typically both together in the moment with Brahm. I had the “luxury” of being an observer during one of Brahm’s meltdowns this year. We took a family field trip to a local outdoors store. In my naïve mind, I thought it was going to be great – Brahm would love looking at all the cool stuff – the canoes, bikes, and camping gear. We split up when we entered the store – Helena and I went to pick up the item we came for and Nick and Brahm went off exploring the store. Helena and I grabbed the item and got in line for the checkout. It was at that moment, I could hear Brahm from a ways off. I knew his tone and knew it wasn’t good. I could hear Brahm yelling about a lantern (remember, Brahm’s obsession with lights!). He wanted the lantern and became enraged when he couldn’t have it. It was in that moment, I was trying to decide if I should bail on the checkout line to go help Nick or stay put. I stayed put for another minute and by this time could tell Brahm was in full meltdown mode. Just then, Nick emerged. He was carrying Brahm, who was screaming, kicking, and hitting. Nick was heading towards the door to take Brahm to the car. Our eyes locked and without any words, I confirmed that Nick had the situation handled and I didn’t need to follow him.
Just then, I realized the cashier had radioed to her colleagues and snarled “does someone have that kid?!!”. She then turned to me and apologized for “that kid’s” behavior. I was caught so off-guard and was completely engrossed in making sure Brahm and Nick were okay that I didn’t even process what she had just said. I said nothing in response and just quickly checked out and left. Helena had to witness the whole thing.
After I got back to the car, I felt awful. I felt awful we couldn’t control Brahm a little better. I felt awful Nick had to deal with it. I felt awful Helena had to see it. I felt awful the customers had their shopping experience lessened. I felt awful I did and said nothing. And then, I felt really awful that minutes later, I still couldn’t think of the right thing to do or say. I guess I should have apologized and tried to explain why Brahm was acting the way he was. But, really, how could I expect the cashier or anyone else in the store to understand? I never want our family to ruin anyone else’s experience. Autism is hard.
P.S. – When Brahm is having a meltdown, the best thing to do is remove him from his current place/situation to try to find a quiet and calm place. It is best to NOT talk to him – he loses rationale thinking in those moments and trying to “talk” him out of it actually makes it worse. Fingers crossed you’ll never have to experience this delight!