Tag Archives: meltdowns

Thinking Ahead

My younger son Aidan, who is twelve, has recently discovered Bob Marley. He found one of my CDs from my college days (when I first discovered Bob) and it was love at first listen. Aidan plays it day and night. He tells me that he likes the music, but also the lyrics. And I’ve noticed that, too. Aidan seems even calmer and more introspective than usual. What I hadn’t noticed was that Nigel had also started listening.

Last weekend the boys were very excited because The Day the Earth Stood Still was opening. They had recently seen the original and looked forward to comparing the new one to it. I told them that we’d wait until the following weekend so it wouldn’t be so crowded. Then I made the fatal mistake of writing on the calendar the day and time I hoped that I could take them to see it.  If it’s on the calendar, it’s in stone as far as Nigel is concerned. It’s going to happen. And usually, it does. But that morning the schools had scheduled an emergency 2-hour late start due to bad road conditions, and that threw everything off for the day. Because Aidan started school two hours later, I couldn’t go into work until two hours later. Consequently, I didn’t finish my work until two hours later than I normally do. By the time I got home, I could not do all I needed to do in time to go to the movies that evening, and we would go the following day, I announced.

Nigel got upset. “But it’s on the calendar!” he yelled and began breathing heavily through clenched teeth, eyes wild as he quickly went into meltdown mode. This was not good. I had plans with a friend later that evening (something I had planned to do after the movie), and if Nigel didn’t calm down, I wouldn’t be able to leave him. I tried reminding him about “Old Plan, New Plan.”  “That doesn’t work!” he yelled. He then took a wooden ruler and mutilated a piece of pizza with it. I could tell he was escalating. He went to the living room and broke one of my hand-painted pysanky eggs from relatives in Slovakia. I knew that my response was crucial – he wanted a reaction out of me, so I did not react. I calmly said, “Nigel, pick up those broken pieces and put them in the trash.” And I think he was a little surprised that I didn’t yell at him about the egg, so he actually cleaned it up. He resumed his verbal tirade, but at least he stopped being destructive. Then I had an idea. An alternative for him. It was a “New Plan,” but I didn’t want to call it that.

It was risky, because I didn’t want him to think that I was rewarding him for his behavior. But what I hoped to accomplish was to help motivate him to regulate his behavior himself. Some would call it a bribe. But God knows that when you have to change plans on an autistic teen, you better have an acceptable back-up plan.

I sat him down and tried to look into his wild eyes. “Nigel, here are your choices. You can be mad about not going to see the movie tonight, but that’s not going to make it happen. Or, you can calm down and come with me to the store to pick out a video rental and get some ice cream, and we’ll see The Day the Earth Stood Still tomorrow.” Then I got up and went to my room to get my boots and coat.

Aidan followed me into my room. He looked at me. “Why does he act that way?” he asked with concern and sadness in his voice. “Honey, it’s because the autism makes it hard for him to regulate his emotions and his behavior.”

“Then how is he going to take care of himself when he’s an adult?” Aidan asked in a sincere voice.

A chill ran through my body. I looked at him. “We don’t know if he will. But he’s learning; he’s trying. I think he’ll figure it out. And he can live with me as long as he needs to. So can you.”

I put my arm around him and we walked out into the hallway. Nigel was standing by the front door, with his shoes and coat on. I looked at his face, and the wildness was gone, replaced by a look that I couldn’t determine. Remorse? Gratitude? Maybe both. “I’m ready,” he said. “Okay, I’ll get my purse and keys,” I said. As I walked off, I heard Aidan quietly say to him, “I’m glad you were able to calm down.” And my heart filled with far too many emotions to identify.

A moment later, as I started the car, Nigel asked from the back seat, “Can we listen to ‘Don’t Worry About a Thing’?”

“It’s called ‘Three Little Birds,'” Aidan said.

“Sure,” I said, inserting the CD. And then we all sang, even Nigel:

Don’t worry . . . about a thing . . . ‘cause every little thing . . . gonna be all right . . .

Escaping a Meltdown

Walking with DinosaursWhen 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

Toy Envy

We have been waist-deep in Birthday-Induced Toy Envy and Younger Brother Control Issues. Far be it for me to think that this problem might have abated by now, but apparently twelve- and thirteen-year-olds are just as susceptible. Only now they are bigger and hormonal. And they’re not embarrassed bickering in front of their friends.

For his birthday this past weekend, Aidan received a toy that has flown off the local toy store shelves: Transforming Wall-E. His father had purchased it a month earlier in LA and brought it up to Oregon for the party. Nigel fell in love with it, and Aidan exploited that by not letting Nigel hold it. This is difficult territory for me for several reasons.

  • I want Aidan to share, but I don’t want it to be forced.
  • He already accuses me of favoring Nigel.
  • Nigel can learn patience about getting to hold his brother’s new things, but I certainly can’t expect commendable behavior from him in the same sensory-overloaded situation.

So Nigel kept nagging and Aidan kept refusing and Nigel’s behavior was escalating, but I was distracted getting dinner ready for a bunch of adolescent boys and couldn’t intervene. Finally, I had them all sit at the kitchen table, hoping the pizza and root beer would be enough to distract Nigel, but it was too late. He was in meltdown mode, clenching his fists, gritting his teeth, and growling. “Nigel, relax and eat your pizza,” I calmly suggested. “RRRRRRAAAOORRRR!!!” he growled in the face of the boy seated next to him. Fortunately, I was nearby and was able to grab Nigel as he lunged at the poor boy (a wonderful family friend who has witnessed Nigel’s meltdowns before and still agrees to come to our home). I managed to walk Nigel to his room as he growled, hissed, and clawed at me, his eyes wide with a combination of rage and fear. I reminded him that he needed to calm himself before he could finish eating and hang with his friends, and then I went back to the kitchen to apologize.

The friend whom Nigel had roared and lunged at asked if Nigel was okay, bless his compassionate heart. I thanked him for being so understanding. When I went to check on Nigel about fifteen minutes later, he had shredded a file folder, but he was de-escalating. I could tell he wanted to rejoin his friends because he was lying on the floor on his back, with most of his body outside of his bedroom door, and he was quietly talking to himself. Five minutes later, he was running around with his friends, laughing.

The next day, he came to me and asked if I would buy him his own Wall-E toy. I told him that he could use his allowance to buy it, but that all the local stores were sold out, so we would need to order it online. He flopped down on the chair in my office and said, “They’re like a flying pack of locusts, taking everything they can get! If only they could let me have a chance!” This was said with much more emotion than his usual flat tone. “Who?” I asked. “The store customers?” “Yes!” said my son, victim of consumerism.

And Aidan, I’m happy to say, finally relented. Last night, the three of us were relaxing on the couch watching a movie. Nigel diplomatically requested to hold Wall-E for “only a minute.” Aidan gave him three. And all was well in my little corner of the universe.