Tuesday, 6 September 2016

What is it? Is it a tantrum or is it a meltdown?

One of the biggest issues that we deal with on a daily basis at Superhero Headquarters is behaviour. I know that all parents have to deal with behavioural issues but disciplining a child on the autism spectrum is, at times, a little more stressful than disciplining a NT child.

Before we finally got a diagnosis for L, actually long before we even started the assessment process for L, we had a lot of well meaning people, well I hope that they were well meaning and not just arrogant sods, try to give us advice on how to deal with L’s behaviour. We were told that we should attend parenting classes as what we were doing obviously was not working – and yet it was working for O. We were told “oh he’s just being a typical boy” and “he’s just showing his true colours” – what???? We were told “if you just ignore him, the tantrums will stop” – we tried that too and guess what, they didn’t, he’d just keep going.

L’s tantrums, well we were told that they were tantrums, were one of the many reasons that we continued to seek advice from medical professionals. It was only when we started doing a little reading that we came to the realization that he was in meltdown mode and then everything started to make sense. Sure, there were times and still are times when he is just chucking a tantrum but the majority of his and his sisters are meltdowns.


You see a tantrum has a defined want – it starts over a desire to want something, the child will often look at you to gauge your reaction and a tantrum will stop and start with ease. Quite often the child will stop when a) they get what they want or b) they realise that they aren’t getting the reaction that they wanted. You can reason with a child having a tantrum, you can sort of talk with them to help them calm down. During a tantrum, the child is in control of what they are doing and they may make demands – “I’ll stop if you let me watch TV.”

A meltdown on the other hand is a huge weather front that at times you can see brewing, that you just have to let run its course. A meltdown is not goal orientated. A meltdown is usually caused by the child being in sensory overload by the environment around them – too much noise, too many people, change in routines, bright lights, tiredness, strange smells. During a meltdown, the child has no interest in how you are reacting to them, they’re not in control and may injure themselves because they’re not aware of their surroundings. Meltdowns can be very, very slow to end. Meltdowns are noisy and they suck the energy out of the child and at times, out of the parent and siblings.


Now like many parents with children on the spectrum, I can see potential triggers from a mile away. I will go out of my way to avoid said triggers. I have an arsenal of distractions in my hand bag so that if I’m not able to avoid the triggers, I can at least attempt to disarm the triggers and try to make outings easier for my little superheroes. And if all these don’t work, there’s really no need to sound any alarms, my little superheroes screams will be warning enough to those around us that something is wrong. For you see, when either of my children reach meltdown stage, bombs away!! There is absolutely nothing that can be said or done to talk them out of that mode.

This is not to say that we just let them go – c’mon sing with me, let it go, let it go, can’t hold it back anymore. Sorry totally off tangent, not that let it go! Sometimes, the little superheroes just have to scream it out and other times, they are receptive to us cuddling or trying to distract them.

Just like I know what my little superheroes triggers are, I know that sometimes I just have to let them get all their anger and frustration out. They need to yell and scream and throw things. Sometimes I am just so emotionally and mentally spent, that in that moment I just throw my hands up, wish that someone would send me to time out, walk away, take a deep breath, count to ten and go back in for more.

Sometimes I can sense that I will be able to calm them down quicker if I sit with them. No talking, no cuddling, just sit and be with them until they’re ready to come to me.

And then finally, they’ll come crawling over for a reassuring cuddle and ask for a tissue. I’ll wipe their face and start thinking that maybe, just maybe the storm has finally passed and I’ll also be hoping like hell that they’re not recharging for round two. And then I’ll find L’s green blanket or O’s bitty bug, sit on the couch/bed/bathroom floor cuddling them and waiting for them to fall asleep.

They expend so much energy during a meltdown, that they’ll often fall asleep afterwards and that’s when my heart breaks and my tears will flow as I know that at times, there is absolutely nothing that I can do or say to stop a meltdown. I just have to be there for them so that through the meltdown fog, they know that we love them and are there for them no matter what.

And I remind myself that the behaviour wasn’t done on purpose, it was done for a purpose. L or O were trying to tell me something but in that moment weren’t able to express themselves using words.

I’ll then begin to wonder: how many grey hairs have I got now? Is that the phone ringing or my ears? Did the neighbours hear all that and are the police on the way? Can you lose hearing due to the screaming level of a child?

So the next time you see what you think is just a bratty kid having a temper tantrum because they’re not getting his/her way, please look again. It might be a temper tantrum in full swing or it in fact might be a child not coping in the environment and trying to tell his/her parents something. And please don’t give a condescending look to the parents, they are doing their best, they’re doing what’s best for their child. They might just be on this marvelous journey called Autism.

29 comments:

  1. so glad that you drew a line between the two. I often have them confused but have seen all of my children throw both a time or two
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    1. At times, there can be a very fine line between the two.

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  2. As a mommy of three my oldest being 5! this is great information! Thank you!

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  3. That's difficult and you handle it very well. It is tough for some people to see it for what it really is and a lot of people can be really unforgiving when it comes to kids.

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    1. I just wished that more people knew the difference so that they weren't so judgmental of kids having a hard time.

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  4. This was very interesting to read

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  5. Really enjoyed this post, so very informative!

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  6. I had no idea about the difference and maybe I was even guilty of using the two words interchangeably.

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    1. I think we've all been guilty of using the two terms interchangeably, it's just good to know the difference between the two.

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  7. I love your positive, practical outlook. Parenting is hard & I cannot imagine all the nuances that autism adds to the challenge of parenthood. Thank you for sharing!

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    1. You are most welcome and thank you for your kind words.

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  8. It would be so beneficial for all parents to know and understand this! Especially for those who have friends or family with autism. Great read, Chloe

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  9. Great post. This is especially good for younger kiddos. Our youngest is 17 months, so we can tell which it is but younger not so much.

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    1. Thank you, I'm hoping that it will help parents to distinguish between the two.

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  10. Such a strong mama! Your kids are lucky to have you.

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    1. Thank you, I feel very lucky to have them too.

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  11. I love how I am learning so much about kids even before having them. Thanks for sharing this useful info :)

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  12. Woah. So glad to have learned the difference! As a future healthcare professional who is hoping to work with kids, this is good info to have!

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    1. It is so important to know the difference. I lost count of the number of healthcare professionals who brushed our concerns aside. It took one of them seeing L in full meltdown mode to take us seriously.

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  13. Thank you for sharing this. It was very informative.

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  14. It's really important to know the difference between the two. You'll never know what they can do to themselves when they're having a meltdown.

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  15. Thanks for putting down this piece! We have been having trouble tantrums at home, and some days it is just getting difficult.I hope it gets okay

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