When Nigel was younger, most of his meltdowns occurred due to sensory overload, usually from noise. I couldn’t take him into grocery stores, restaurants, pumpkin festivals. We stayed home a lot as a way to avoid potential meltdowns. Then there were the meltdowns that occurred as a result of his frustration with not being able to communicate, which happened anywhere, especially at home. So we used PECS and visual schedules to try to avoid those meltdowns. I never succeeded in eliminating them, of course, but it was a desperate game that I played, trying to anticipate a meltdown and evading it any way I could.
Now that he is older, and can successfully use ear plugs, I rarely worry about meltdowns due to noise. We frequent grocery stores, restaurants, and a festival now and then. We don’t need to stay home as much, and that is liberating. Nigel is also now verbal, has been for several years, so we no longer use PECS to communicate, and he doesn’t have meltdowns due to communication problems (except when he was mainstreamed in public school). But there’s another type of meltdown.
Sometimes, having the emotional age of an eight-year-old, Nigel has a meltdown when he can’t have something he wants. And there is usually a build-up, either by someone (often his younger brother) antagonizing him, or by me letting him have other things that he wants and then cutting him off. Last week he kept upping the ante, first asking for restaurant pizza, then ice cream for dessert, then buying a movie that he had to have. Feeling like a neglectful parent due to NaNoWriMo, I let him have those things. Then the next day, he went for a walk in the neighborhood, wearing his watch so that he would come home at the stated time. Ten minutes later, he came bursting through the front door, panting, saying that some people down the street were giving away free kittens. And he wanted to go back and get one.
Yes, yes, I know – you can never have too many cats. I love them, I do. We have two wonderful cats. But with two kids, two cats, two jobs, and a house on my plate, I do not need another pet right now. And I want Nigel to learn that getting a pet is not something about which to be impulsive. So I gently told him no and explained my reasoning. I felt a switch turn on.
Nigel went into meltdown mode. He was in my office and that would not do. I tried to guide him out but he would not budge. I shut off the lights and said, “Let’s discuss this while I make dinner,” and he followed me to the kitchen. When he realized that I was not going to back down, he began shouting, “Communist! I’m going to report you to PETA!” and grabbed a knife out of the drawer. I took it from him before he even started to do anything with it, then he ran to his room and grabbed a screwdriver and held it to his jugular. This was quickly turning scary, in spite of the PETA remark.
I grabbed the screwdriver out of his hand and walked through the living room. Aidan, who had spent the night at a friend’s house the night before, was napping on the couch. And there was something playing on the TV. Something Nigel hadn’t seen in a long time: Walking with Dinosaurs. Nigel stopped following me and fixed his attention on the TV. I rounded the corner and slowly peered back around it, realizing that Nigel had been distracted. I hid the screwdriver and snuck back to my office, knowing that if I made dinner and tried to serve him now, he would refuse to eat and would probably resume his tirade.
I waited half an hour while Nigel watched Walking with Dinosaurs, feeling triumphant that I had escaped a worse meltdown. Saved by a DVD. Sometimes he has persevered in his self-injury, sometimes he has run out the front door and I’ve had to wrestle with him to get him to come back in, sometimes he has threatened me, often he has broken things. Meltdowns get scarier as our kids get older and bigger. We have all learned ways of attempting to avoid them, or to cut them off at the pass once they begin. When they do, here is what (sometimes) works in our house (when I’m lucky):
- Removal from the room in which the meltdown originated
- Parent remaining calm but in control
- Distraction: Turn on music or the TV
- Sufficient time for a calming period