The Anatomy of an Autistic Meltdown

My 4-year-old son is on the autism spectrum. I write about autism a lot!  I usually keep my pieces uplifting, resourceful, and strategy-based.  But not this one.

While I do believe it is important to remain optimistic, I also think honesty about the difficulties is equally important.  I sometimes feel frustrated, vulnerable, and overwhelmed.  But often in that space, when I feel least effective as a parent, is where I find the strength to keep going.  Last Sunday was one of those days.

It was around 7:30 am and my son’s normal wake time.  I could hear him on the baby monitor reciting lines from a favorite movie.  I tiptoed into his doorway, knocked, and waited for him to guess if it was mommy or daddy before peering in.  “It’s Mommy,” he cheerfully said.  I scooped him up. We headed to the bathroom for him to potty and change clothes.  The same routine we follow each morning.  However, what came next was an obliteration of that routine.

I helped him out of his pull-up and pajamas.  He picked up the standing toilet paper holder and, pretending it was a sword, started hitting me with it.  I took it from him and sat it outside the bathroom. He grabbed the lid to the toilet paper storage container and began smashing it on the toilet lid, denting it with each crash.  I took that from him and sat it outside the bathroom.

Those two denials sent him spiraling into one of his worst meltdowns. He began grabbing and throwing every object within reach.  He became aggressive; biting, scratching, hitting.  I left the bathroom, him still undressed, putting some distance between us. He followed me and continued acting aggressively.  At one point, he decided he wanted some toys out of a locked closet.  I said, “First clothes, then toys.” He refused.  He grabbed a chair to reach the lock to open it himself.  I removed him from the chair and repeated, “First clothes, then toys.”

“No clothes, Mommy!” I was losing this battle.  Nothing in my bag of tricks was working.  My son was naked and wild.  I wanted to cry.  I doubted everything about my effectiveness as a mother.  I questioned every bit of progress he had made.  A brief ten-minute span on one Sunday morning reduced me to hopelessness.

Eventually, he began to calm.  I asked him, “Do you want to help me make eggs and bacon for breakfast?”

Without hesitation, “Yes, Mommy!”

I told him, “First clothes, then eggs and bacon.”

“Okay, I do it.”  He immediately walked into the bathroom and dressed.  We then made breakfast together like nothing ever happened.

I have reflected a great deal over that morning.  What could I have done differently?  Did I miss a trigger?  Inasmuch as I want to define the very specific reason, sometimes there isn’t a clear one.  Sometimes people, especially children, even more children with developmental disabilities, have bad mornings for no reason at all.

While I hope his lagging skills of frustration tolerance, the ability to communicate his emotions effectively, and his empathy towards others will improve, for now, I have to accept where he is.  One bad morning doesn’t negate all the hundreds of good mornings.

What can I do?  First, take everything out of the bathroom. The temptation to use the toilet paper stand as a sword will be off the table! The meltdown trigger was denied access to what he wanted.  I can ask his therapists to help increase his ability to tolerate denied access.  It will take time, but it’s a start.

I can also remind myself next time that a 10-minute meltdown over an entire day, over an entire week, means most of the time he is happy!

The next time your child is in the middle of a meltdown, remind yourself, this is just right now, not forever. In fact, it most likely will be over in only a few minutes.  Don’t give up on your ability to parent and your child’s ability to learn because of one bad morning.  We all have them!

You can’t let one bad moment spoil a bunch of good ones. – Dale Earnhardt

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Amy Nielsen

Amy Nielsen is a former children's librarian of nearly twenty years. She now spends most of her time obsessively pounding on a keyboard. She is the author of It Takes a Village: How to Build a Support System for Your Exceptional Needs Family, Goldilocks and the Three Bears: Understanding Autism Spectrum Disorder. Her upcoming YA Worth it debuts in May of 2024. She is also a freelance writer for The Autism Helper. When she's not writing, she and her family are most likely crusing the waters of Tampa Bay.