Once upon a time, I thought I could stop a meltdown. I thought there must be some strategy that I could learn, some consequence I could impose, SOMETHING I could DO to just make it STOP.
Karla must have laughed so hard the first time I asked for her advice on this! But she patiently, through many of my panicked texts and emails, redirected me away from the idea that I could handle it in the moment and toward the concept of root cause.
Now I know that I can no more stop a meltdown than I can stop a train. Trying to stop it is a lot like jumping onto the tracks and waving your arms. If the conductor sees you at all, he’s going to feel really bad about plowing through you, but plow through you he will because there is nothing else he can do. And he would be justified in blaming you for putting yourself in the way.
Let me sidestep for just a minute and make sure everyone knows what I am talking about when I say meltdown. I’m not talking about a temper tantrum, which is a child’s deliberate attempt to get what he wants by throwing a fit. A meltdown is a complete loss of self control. Neither threat of the most feared consequence nor promise of the most coveted reward will stop it. It happens because the child has no more ability to cope, but the demands on him have not stopped, whether in the form of tasks, behavior expectations, sensory input, or anything else that costs him tokens.
So, back to me, standing on the train tracks, begging Karla for a way to stop the train. She would ask me what had caused the meltdown and I would describe what had triggered it (which could be anything–a simple question, an accidental touch, being out of his favorite snack). No, she would say, what was the root cause? I’d think back a little farther to something that had preceded the trigger (an argument with his brother, a bad day at school). Still no. Think back farther, she’d say. Has he been sleeping well? Was he healthy? How was his diet? Had he been getting any exercise? Was he spending too many tokens at school? I’d begin to feel like she wasn’t listening, that she didn’t understand that I was in mid-crisis here and I needed help! I couldn’t do anything about those things RIGHT NOW. This train was barreling down on me and I needed to stop it RIGHT NOW!
Today I understand that Karla was trying to pull me off the tracks. Whatever had triggered the meltdown didn’t matter. What mattered was that Nick had no more tokens, and the drains on his supply began long before the trigger hit.
So why had he run out of tokens? Had he spent too many on something, or started the day without a full supply? Figure that out and I’d have root cause. Figure out root cause and I’d get fewer meltdowns.
But where did that leave me in mid-crisis? Where was the solution in the moment?
There wasn’t one. If the meltdown was already in progress, all I could do was get out of the way.
It was a hard lesson to learn. I felt like simply stepping back and allowing a meltdown to happen was like saying sure, go ahead and scream and throw things, call me names, that’s fine with me. But when I finally came to understand that he really had no control over his behavior at that moment, it was easier to accept that I had no control over it either.
Instead of trying to force him to stop, my job is to make sure he is safe, but otherwise to disengage. Any input that he receives from me just demands more tokens that he doesn’t have and prolongs the meltdown. This is true even if he is trying to engage me. Some meltdowns come with verbal expression that may tempt me to argue back, explain, try to get him to see reason. This is not the time to discuss, answer, or demand. It’s not the time to take seriously, or personally, anything that he says.
If I can see the meltdown coming, I may be able to get him to a safe place (like his room) where he can explode in private. It’s easier on whoever else is in the house, and it’s easier on him, too, because he will be protected from all input.*
Meanwhile, I look back to root cause. Again, whatever triggered the meltdown is not the same thing. He melted down because he ran out of tokens. I need to figure out why he ran out of tokens. That is the root cause of the meltdown. When he was melting down constantly because school was costing him too many tokens, we changed how he does school. If I realize that I forgot to give him an afternoon snack, I get one ready and add a reminder to my daily to-do list so I won’t forget again. If I’m not sure why he ran out of tokens, I have to figure it out. In any case, I reduce demands on him until we regain balance.
Meltdowns hurt. No one wants to have them. They are painful and stressful for the people experiencing them, whether they are the ones having a meltdown or the ones present during someone else’s meltdown. It takes time to recover from them. I believe it is crucial for the health of an autistic person to keep them to a minimum. (I should note that adults have meltdowns too and the same concepts apply.)
Avoiding meltdown triggers just leads to me walking on eggshells around my son, avoiding an ever-growing list of things that took his last token while not actually reducing meltdowns. Looking for root cause, and using it to structure our lives in a way that maintains token balance, has been far more helpful. Plus, Nick is learning to understand root cause so that eventually he will be able to manage his own meltdown prevention.
Once upon a time, I thought that by “allowing” meltdown behavior, I was reinforcing it and thereby encouraging more of it. I tried to stop every meltdown in its tracks, and he was having meltdowns every day.
Now, I focus on prevention. If that fails and they happen anyway, I do nothing to try to stop them. The result is that meltdowns are now much less frequent in my house. Once again, the solution was to flip my thinking around.
*Self-injurious behaviors add another aspect to the meltdown and affect the balance between disengaging and keeping the child safe. This post presumes the meltdown behavior is not dangerous to the child or other people.