I recently blogged about the most beautiful family day that we had the privilege of experiencing. And I basked in it. I 100% threw myself into the feeling of relaxation and elation at seeing my boy so happy. At seeing him swing from a tree with his dad, seeing him run with his friends. I imprinted this day on my brain. It’s firmly at the forefront of my memory tank. I guess many people would ask why do I make such an effort to frame this day and place it on the mantelpiece of my mind? Well I’ll tell you. Because I know what’s coming next.
You see in the world of autism, a day of happiness, a day of simple fun and pleasure, often comes at a price. And for us, that price hits us in the days that follow. For kiddo, these are recovery days. He uses so much energy, so much effort in controlling the sights, sounds and movements of that one day, that his ability of being able to tolerate the real world is completely depleted. And then it comes. The meltdown comes.
Now I’m not talking about a typical tantrum here. I’m talking about a catatonic state of distress, where no matter what you do you cannot find a way in. You cannot communicate with this child. His levels of distress are so high that he physically attacks himself. The day after our one day in the sun, this is how the meltdown teased its way into our day…
Kiddo was in a changeable mood. His movement from happiness to frustration, from sadness to unexplained excitement, reminded me of a why I often refer to this journey as a rollercoaster ride. He asked for quiet time, time to himself with as little sensory input as possible. How he asked for that is a whole other story that I will grace you with another day, for now he just needed his space.
Now his father and I have seen this pattern before. We knew the potential outcome, and we were tense. We tried to act out a false sense of relaxation so that kiddo wouldn’t pick up on our nerves, our fear of an impending meltdown. Did we succeed? Who knows. For what set him off was so simple. So quick. We could never have known. For all it took was three simple words, completely random unrelated words to the current circumstance for kiddo to become lost in his world of despair.
His father quietly spoke the words “on PBS kids” (told you it was random and unrelated), and the hell mouth to the autistic meltdown was open. There was no going back. No quick recovery. We were going to have to ride this one out.
Kiddo stopped breathing. He tried to utter a scream, but the terror in his eyes swallowed that scream instantly. He froze. “Oh no!” he cried, for he knew what was happening and he was powerless to stop it. His face asked for help but his body denied it. I moved forward to comfort him but was abruptly pushed aside. So I did the only thing I could do. I sat in the corner, occasionally diving in between kiddo and furniture as he ran at full speed, determined to injure himself. Determined to feel pain. I felt my face become hot as he began to self harm. His eyes squinting hard as he hit himself directly in the face, no hesitation, no consideration for the pain or injury he might cause. “It’s ok” I muttered quietly as I could, but it was still too loud. He came at me across the room, trying to hit me in the face. I’m well practised at defending myself by now and he missed. But emotionally, those moments sting a parent as sharply as a blade to the heart. Kiddo looked up in fear, dismayed at his act. “Oh no” he cried again, and he sank to the floor. The sobbing is the worst part, the shuddered breathing and uncontrollable shakes. For whilst many believe that children with autism have no empathy, this is not always the case. Kiddo knew what he had done, and he was distressed by his actions. His uncontrollable unintentional actions. But I had already forgotten, for the self harm began again. Half an hour later things seemed to calm slightly. Some slight eye contact was possible, but no talking and no touch. Here I will wait for you kiddo, until you can join our world again. Until you can bare the sights, sounds and smells of the room around you.
We came through this meltdown and put him to bed. He looked so peaceful as he slept. No nightmares for him tonight, for he had already had one. He had lived it out in real life.
Being much more expert in dealing with such an occasion, kiddo’s Dad and I made sure we were both ok. A little shaken, but not too stirred. We made a cup of tea, chatted about what went wrong and moved on with our evening.
And we will be here kiddo for the next one. And the one after that. And the one after that.
You are never alone when you are swallowed by the tornado of sensory overload. We are always here, waiting for the storm to subside. And to peacefully put you to bed so you can face another day.
Thanks for reading,