Sometimes when I look at my son, it’s like he is not even there. The happy, sweet boy that we are learning to connect with is missing from behind his bright blue eyes. He’s completely lost.
As a parent, trying to manage a meltdown from a child on the autism spectrum is incredibly difficult. But to actually experience that meltdown? I can’t even imagine.
Wilson’s sensory reactions and how much his developing system can handle can be so unpredictable. His ability to understand and follow instructions has improved, but when coupled with a new environment and tons of stimulation, he completely checks out. We cannot communicate or reason with him. He throws himself to the ground, pushes, pulls, screams and attempts to run away. He experiences fear, sadness, anger, confusion, pain and all his senses overloaded at once. He really doesn’t know what to do, so he completely loses control.
One of the first experiences I had with this type of meltdown was before Wilson was diagnosed with autism. We were headed into Target one day and I had him and his baby sister in the double stroller. Wilson was screaming and I assumed he would get distracted when we walked in but it immediately got worse. This wasn’t a whining toddler cry. It was blood-curdling screaming. Everyone from Customer Service to shoppers and the staff at the checkout stands was staring. We did a U-turn and walked right back out the automatic doors. I walked to the front of the stroller and leaned down close to try and reason with him. I’m not sure why, he wasn’t speaking yet and could only understand a limited amount of my words. He screamed and flailed his limbs and his foot made a perfect connection with my jaw like he was some kind of professionally trained MMA-Super-Ninja.
My two-year-old had just kicked me in the face. We headed to the car, both of us in tears.
We’re learning ways to help avoid or work through these meltdowns. Sometimes, hard as we may try, we just can’t see them coming.
We were on vacation last weekend and wanted to take Wilson to the outdoor mall to ride the children’s train (he LOVES trains). We arrived to find a massive children’s festival. Bounce houses in every shape and size, a petting zoo, miniature golf, firetrucks, and long lines for all of the aforementioned activities, including Wilson’s beloved train.
The screaming began the moment he saw the train and couldn’t jump right on. We maneuvered him to the end of the line, hoping we could come up with some distractions while we waited. The screaming didn’t stop, and we found that we had to purchase tickets for the train at another location in the mall. Both my husband and I were panicked and fumbling. Trying to think on the fly while your child is experiencing a (loud) meltdown is nearly impossible. We tried to distract him by visiting the firetrucks, the one area without a line or ticket requirement. The firemen were kind and tried to help calm Wilson by showing him the truck and giving him stickers. When Wilson realized he couldn’t get in the firetruck, it was game over. We all left in tears (except for his little sister Charlie, she scored a popsicle out of the ordeal.)
I was so sad for my boy that he couldn’t be there. That he couldn’t understand how to be there. Or withstand the stimulation of all those fun activities happening at once.
Wilson thrives in a routine so vacations can be difficult to begin with. Every outing, home or away, takes a lot of planning and preparation to avoid incidents like this one. The big meltdowns seem to be growing fewer and farther between, but screaming is still one of Wilson’s main means of communication every day. He screams to protest, to express when he is sad, mad or scared, and to drown out another sound he cannot stand to hear. Then there are times he does it simply for good old fashioned attention.
I will not lie, it all wears me down.
A friend of mine (and fellow autism mom) sent me this text out of the blue one day:
“Thinking about you as I listen to this (podcast) it’s so good. Hope you are doing ok… Remember you are the perfect mom for Wilson…even on your worst mom days…you two are soulmates ;)”
I come back to these words often. They have picked me up off of the kitchen floor when I couldn’t take one more of his meltdowns so I had one myself. This little human needs me. No matter how much kicking, screaming and frustration we go through, it could never take an ounce away from the good stuff. Every new word, achievement, thought or emotion expressed, every connection made, his sweet hugs and when he giggles as he awkwardly holds my face nose-to-nose with his. Singing new songs, hugging his sister tightly, when I see him brave and proud.
He is mine and I am his and I am so thankful for that.