Non-autistic, or allistic, people often have a pretty negative view of autism. Tragically, their attitudes and opinions often come from the allistic parents of autistic children. Such parents tend to over share embarrassing and private moments of their kids’ lives, to give details about misbehavior, toileting accidents, and above all meltdowns. What these parents leave out is everything they’re doing to make things get to that point.
We’re all pretty familiar with a tantrum. That’s when someone, usually a child but often grown ups too, engages in undesired behavior to get their way. It’s the little tyke threatening to scream or hold their breath until their parents cave to their demands, most often in the grocery store. It’s an intentional manipulation and ideally something their parents can help them outgrow.
A meltdown is not a tantrum. Far from being the calculated action of a child angling for a specific outcome, a meltdown is a temporary loss of control, most often brought on by distress. A child having a meltdown is not being willful or manipulative or bad. They’re being overwhelmed, by social pressure, by sensory stimulus, by intense emotions. The very last thing they need is for their parents to escalate the situation, film it, and post it online.
Meltdowns, and more serious signs of distress like self injury and lashing out at others, can be prevented. Keeping my child from constant distress, while teaching him coping skills for the more occasional stresses all human life has, is my job. If he’s having a lot of meltdowns, it’s my obligation and duty to help him discover why and what we can do about it. The only times in his life he’s had frequent meltdowns were times when I was unknowingly exposing him to sensory torture and bullying school teachers.
Preventing meltdowns requires asking some questions without assuming the answers. You can’t learn why a meltdown really happened, what physical or emotional pain preceded it, if you’ve already decided the cause is a bad child. I believe children will usually act about as well as they feel, and if they can’t keep it together, there’s usually a reason. Because I’m not assuming malice on his part, I can think of my child as my partner in solving The Mystery of the After School Meltdown. The culprit turned out to be at school bullying.
Meltdowns are often signs of greater problems, like abuse or untreated pain. More often they point to mundane problems with simple solutions, like buying a pair of noise cancelling headphones for a child with sensitive hearing, or bringing a beloved toy to the store for a child who struggles with transitions. Meltdowns tell us where our kids require our accommodation. They are expressions of unmet needs. There is absolutely no good reason for a parent to respond to their child’s unmet needs with punitive or shaming behavior.
Filming a child having a meltdown is as baffling and cruel as filming a child crying of hunger rather than feeding them. When our kids can’t cope in the moment, it’s our turn to cope extra well. We need to bear with the stares and judgments of strangers. We need to rise above our shame at what looks like a public tantrum. We need to stay calm while they can’t, and when they’re ready we need to help them resume calm too. It’s not fair to our kids to prioritize our discomfort over their crippling distress.
Autistic children grow up to be autistic adults. They’re going to need strategies and skills to cope with stress, including knowledge on how to prevent unnecessary stress. Just as tantrums give parents opportunities to teach their toddlers the finer points of acceptable negotiation tactics, meltdowns give us parents of autistic children opportunities to teach problem solving and appropriate ways to manage stress. No adult needs their childhood teachable moments preserved and published to haunt them all their days. When considering the high unemployment rates of autistic adults, it’s clear our children need this even less.