Virtual School Induced Meltdown

You’re a parent in 2021, so chances are your child has either been affected by or will be when this happens: COVID cases shutting down classes and leaving you scrambling to figure out how to manage both your job and help your child with virtual school for about ten days.

And if your child is autistic, like my six-year-old son, you know how important routine and predictability are for them. Chaos is likely to ensue if they have disruptions in their environment or schedule. So, what do you do when their routine falls apart leaving you both overwhelmed? How do you help your child and yourself reset and regain stasis? It’s not as difficult as you might think. But you will have to experience a significant meltdown with me before we get to the easy part.

The Major Meltdown

About ten days ago, on a Thursday morning, around 7:00 am, I got a call from my son’s school that someone in his class tested positive for COVID. He’d need to stay home and do virtual school for the rest of the week and all of the next.

My heart pounded as panic swept over me. Last year it didn’t take 30 minutes of virtual school to know it wouldn’t work for Barclay, even with the support of his behavior therapist. In addition to being autistic, Barclay has severe ADHD. He was distracted by all the flashing images and faces of his classmates all over the laptop screen.

Additionally, everything in the room also distracted him. He’d get up and walk away from the computer, or he’d log out of the program. If I forced him to sit, he’d fight back, sometimes destructively. After a few days, I gave up and registered him as a homeschool Kindergartener, and he continued his daily behavior therapy. During that time, we tried virtual tutoring – didn’t work. I also enrolled him, then quickly unenrolled him in a virtual science class.

So I knew virtual school, even for only ten days, would be a disaster. I just didn’t know how big a one. But, I told his teacher we’d give it a go and log in for attendance, and once he was done, I would do the assignments with him myself. And it worked, until it didn’t.

By mid-week, he was completely dysregulated. Logging into a noisy computer first thing in the morning, then doing schoolwork with me rather than play with his toys, then going to ABA in the afternoon from home when he’s used to going after school, was too much.

Wednesday after ABA, he wanted me to download a video game he’d seen advertised, but I was not comfortable with him playing it. To him, it was just a cute animated game. But to me, a video game where a baby does dangerous things while the dad tries to stop him isn’t what my autistic son should play.

He already struggles to comprehend the line between reality and fantasy. I didn’t want to see him act out any dangerous scenes like I knew he would. I told him it was a bad game. He didn’t understand why and threw his iPAD. So I took it.

I sent him to his room to calm down, but it was already too late. He’d escalated into a full-blown meltdown. He pulled all of his books off the shelf and pushed the mattress off of his bed. He chucked his Star Wars spaceships at the door, chipping the paint.

The demands everyone had placed on him all week, coupled with him not gaining access to something he really wanted, was more than the little guy could manage. But I couldn’t keep letting him destroy his room. I took all of his books and put them in Dad’s office. I took all the spaceships. I left him with nothing but his soft stuffed animals.

Eventually, he calmed. He asked me for the iPAD back. I said, “No, Buddy, you threw it. You can’t have it back today.” Then he wanted his spaceships. Same answer. He wanted the books. Same answer. Then I said, “You didn’t make good choices. Do you know what kind of choices you made?”

He spoke softly, “I made bad ones. I’ll make good choices now.” Although I didn’t give him back the items I took, we did play board games the rest of the pleasant afternoon.

The next morning, he couldn’t get enough hugs and kisses from me. I also decided not to place as many demands on him for the next couple of days. He (and I) needed a reset. But the few that I did place, he met with one hundred percent compliance. And he never asked for that video game again.

If you don’t have an autistic child, or your child doesn’t engage in this type of behavior, you may think we are allowing him to behave this way or that we aren’t punishing him enough. But the truth is, even after three and a half years of ABA, my son still struggles with emotional regulation, meltdowns, and aggressive and destructive behavior. We continue to do everything within our power, guided by his team of professionals, in minimizing it. But sometimes, life is just too big for him. And I must be a soft place to land.

The Easy Fix

So when I stated earlier, “It’s not as difficult as you might think,” what I meant was managing what happens BEFORE or AFTER the meltdown. During the meltdown your job is to keep your child, yourself and others safe and minimize property destruction.

Before the Meltdown

The basics of behavior are to first look at what happens before the behavior (called the antecedent) and see what adjustments can be made to PREVENT a meltdown. In our case, I should have gone with my gut instinct, advocated for my son and told the school he would not be participating in virtual. I could have even had him skip ABA for the week since it was different for him to go from home rather than from school. By limiting the disruptions and demands placed on him, he may not have over-reacted about the game.

After the Meltdown

It is very important that after the meltdown ends, you reconnect, but that doesn’t mean giving in to their demands. After his meltdown, my son wanted his iPad, books and toys back, but he needs to understand behaviors have consequences. Instead, I offered him another option, the board games. I also decided that the books and toys would not be returning to his room anytime soon. He needs a safe place to calm down without having things to destroy or break.

The Reality of Parenting Autistic Children

Raising autistic children is a different experience than raising children who don’t have autism. Of my four, three are neurotypical. Not one of the traditional parenting strategies I used when they were growing up would work with my son. Once I let go of those expectations, it allowed me to find solutions that do work for him. I focus on what provides the most peace in my home and joy to our family. If that means we skip a week of schoolwork when the class shuts down due to COVID, so be it!

For more tips and strategies for raising autistic children, check out the Big Abilities blog and podcast.

Find what works and do more of that.

Steve de Shazer

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Amy Nielsen lives in Orlando, Florida. She is the proud mother of four children ranging in age from 5-33! She and her husband, Brent enjoy sports and traveling. Amy is a former teacher with nearly 20 years of experience, a freelance writer, and a special needs advocate. Her mission is to help educate and empower families of children with disabilities to focus on their child's interests and strengths.