“Fuck this!” my son screams at me, “I am so over this! This is what you get and you will handle it!”
He rants on, becoming more and more disrespectful and abusive.
Daniel is having a meltdown. However, most people wouldn’t see a meltdown, they would see an out of control teenager. To many people, his actions seem to be clearly anti-social behavior. So, what are the differences between antisocial behavior and a meltdown.
The primary differences between anti-social behavior and meltdowns are the causes or triggers and persistence of the actions.
Meltdowns are limited in time and caused by sensory overload and may be triggered by:
- Traditional sensory overload such as too much sound or light or activity
- Cognitive overload such as too much information or an unexpected response to a previously useful script
In our children, the “fight or flight” response causes a heightened anxiety. This results in cognitive impairment, perceptual distortion and a narrowing of sensory experience. This means that when a person on the spectrum is overloaded they start to shut down cognitively.
The body’s initial response in a child/person with Asperger’s Syndrome is to freeze cognitively. This gives the brain the down-time it needs to regroup. However, the actions that occur during this “freeze” often present as disturbing, even antisocial behavior. This is particularly true if flight is not an option. Under those circumstances, the person to become combative.
When a person goes into meltdown, they need to stop the sensory flow. They create a wall to block any more incoming information. While there are as many ways of doing this as there are people on the spectrum but they usually fall into two categories:
- Physical Sensory Block: They may start making noise while also reverting to a stim activity such as flapping. Physically forcing the person to stop by trying to push them away, a physical altercation.
- Verbal Sensory Block: Yelling, profanity, loud voice, forceful even abusive speech. This may stop if the verbal input from the other person stops but will start again the second the verbal input starts again. The person is no longer communicating with the words they are saying. Instead they are blocking out anymore input with a wall of words.
In this place, the person is hypersensitive. Even if they seem to have calmed down, they may not be ready to bounce back. The overload has caused the brain to shut down and the body to wind up. Communication has been cut with the individual
Back to my situation with Daniel. That particular morning, we were trying to get ready for school. It was an unusual morning. Daniel needed to remember to bring a project to school. He seemed to be struggling to make it through his usual routine, maybe in part because of the added “to do” item on his list. Trying to be the ever-helpful-mother, I was constantly reminding him of his next step. I have reminded him of every step this particular morning as I can sense that he is struggling.
However, I was feeling the time crunch of the morning too. I had work and needed us to get out the door. I tried to give him 3 next steps in the hope that I can speed up the process. I knew I was pushing my luck but we were getting late. That is when Daniel blew. The stress of the unusual routine and the swiftly passing time combined with my additional input in the form of constant reminders was more than he could take.
He finally takes a breath from his tirade of words. I wait. His breathing seems to return to normal. I glance at the clock. Feeling the pressure of my own “to-do” list, I push again. I try in my gentlest manner to move him on toward getting to the car (the opportunity for the bus has passed). However, I have pushed too soon. The tone of my voice, the couching terms of my encouragement do not make up for the fact that my son is not ready to have more sensory input. His yelling starts again.
Deborah Lipsky and Will Richards suggest using the acronym S.C.A.R.E.D. to guide dealing with a meltdown:
It stands for safe, calm, affirmation, routine, empathy and develop – securing an environment that is safe and secure. The main method of achieving this is by being alone and removing the unwanted stimulation – something that I have found to be the only ameliorative and effective action.
Calmness involves remaining in control by not processing what is happening, but talking in a strong, reassuring and literal manner. Affirmation is ensuring that others contribute positively to resolving the situation by not challenging the person further and reassuring them by name.
The maintenance of routines ensures that the individual can remain within a comfort zone until the catastrophic reaction is over. The individual can then be helped to repair any situation.
The “E” or empathy is understanding the person from their (unique) perspective by not belittling them and acknowledging their fear. Finally, developing (develop) an intervention plan can help reduce the frequency, duration, intensity and negative outcomes of any meltdown. This should be geared towards the individual’s specific requirements, (this is what I feel is the key requirement). – Managing Meltdowns at Aspersger Syndrome Managment
Applying this to the morning routine scenario with Daniel could look like this:
- Safe: I reassure myself that Daniel will not be moving to physically harm himself or others.
- Calm: I position my body to give Daniel space. I become quiet and I instruct all the other kids to take their noise and energy to the car, or their rooms, out of the immediate area. I allow a space of quiet.
- Affirming: This is difficult for me. Often times, just starting to talk again to Daniel to affirm him can trigger the continuation of the meltdown. I have learned to affirm in non-verbal ways. I quiet my voice, my face, my body position. I consciously relax to relieve the tension of the situation.
- Routine: I go back to the routine he is used to. When his hands start to relax, I ask what he wants to do next. He starts to come back to his usual routine.
- Empathy: I remind myself to remove my own “to do” list. Right now, my focus is on helping my son deal with an overload of reminders. I remind myself of how it feels to stress out. Changing my intention in the situation changes the way I approach Daniel and this seems to help.
- Develop: This often can’t be done at that time. Going into problem solving with Daniel would be overwhelming. I do the problem solving later and when Daniel is in a calm and had some time to recover (later that day or the next) we will work together. Often times, he will be able to articulate exactly what pushed him over the edge. We work back from that to develop a plan for how to handle an unusual situation. We also work on scripts for him to use to signal that he is overloading so we can sometimes prevent a meltdown.
As we drive to school, Daniel bursts into tears, “I am such a jerk!”
This is the final aspect of a meltdown. Afterwards there are feelings of shame, remorse or even humiliation.
There are times when Daniel is just a 15-year-old boy acting out. There are times when he is just ignoring or pushing boundaries. We deal with those times very differently. Now that I know the causes of my son’s meltdowns, it is much easier for me to differentiate between teenage rebellion and sensory overload and respond appropriate. I will never be able to discipline away meltdowns because meltdowns are his brains instinctual response to stress overload.
Part of raising a child with Aspergers is teaching them about this aspect of themselves. I must teach my son how to prevent when possible his particular triggers and how to deal with meltdowns when they do occur. This is yet another type of self-advocating that I have to learn and then pass-on to my son.