Meltdowns are common in most autistic children. They are certainly common in mine. But it’s one thing when my son melts down in the privacy of our home and an entirely other when it occurs in public.
The first time this happened was in the showroom of Epcot’s Test Track attraction. You’ll find out what happened below. You’ll read three points of view—a bystander, a mother, and an autistic child.
The only one I wrote with authority is the mother’s—which is mine. The other two I wrote with cautious creativity. To the bystander—I hope I gave you a fresh, empathetic perspective. To my son—I wish you could have told me how you felt that day. I did my best to write your point of view with authenticity and respect.
You disembark a race car attraction at a theme park with your wife and two young kids. The ride exits into a flashy showroom robust with sleek vehicles. A shiny, black pick-up truck, an oversized gray SUV, and a fiery red sports car are some on display. Open doors of each vehicle beckon guests to hop in.
Your kids climb into the black truck and pretend they are off-roading. Next, they jump into the SUV and pretend they are you and your wife carting them to soccer practice. Lastly, they rush to the sports car.
A small boy, who looks to be around four, occupies the driver’s seat. A woman, you assume his mother, sits opposite him in the front passenger seat. A man, you assume his father, stands outside the open door of the car next to the boy. Your kids hop into the vacant back seat to wait their turn.
The mother glances at your kids, then taps the boy on the shoulder.
He death grips the steering wheel. “Stah, Ma-yeh. Stah, Ma-yeh,” he gibbers.
The mother tells him, “Buddy, your turn’s over.”
The father fails to peel the child’s fingers from the steering wheel.
More gibberish. “Stah, Da-yeh. Stah, Da-yeh.”
The father and mother bribe him with snacks, a gift shop toy, the next attraction, but he won’t budge.
You recognize the agitation on the parents’ faces. You’ve been there—more than once. But this ordeal has gone on way too long.
Your antsy kids want their turn in the driver’s seat. You roll your eyes at your wife. She shoots you a glare you interpret as, don’t say a word. You roll your eyes again.
You tell your children, “Let’s go check out that cool yellow car over there.”
The woman leans out the door. “Sir, I’m doing everything I can to get him out. I’m so sorry.”
The father finally pries the boy’s hands free.
In response, the child bites his father’s forearm, drops to the floor, and yells, “Nooooo!”.
Your oblivious kids jump to the sport car’s front seat.
But you’re glued to the scene and curious to see how this plays out.
The child kicks his parents as they try to comfort him.
If that was your kid you would’ve popped him on the bottom, not enough to really hurt but to get your point across. Then you’d cart the ungrateful brat straight to the car.
You’re thankful you and your wife are both on the same page with discipline and as a result, your kids are pretty easy.
These parents could learn a thing or two from you.
Finally, the child gets up. His mother hugs him. Ridiculous.
The mother and father grab his hands and they exit. You resist the urge to clap.
You disembark a race car attraction at a theme park with your husband and four-year-old autistic son. The ride exits into a flashy showroom robust with sleek vehicles. A shiny, black pick-up truck, an oversized gray SUV, and a fiery red sports car are some on display. Open doors of each vehicle beckon guests to hop in.
Your son heads straight for the red sports car. “Ma-Quee, Ma-Quee.” He jumps into the front seat.
He spins the wheel and sputters racing onomatopoeia. “Vroom, Grrr. Screech”
He’s mostly nonverbal but with every few sounds you think you hear almost real words, Ma-Quee, Mayor, Ray. Those almost words are miracles.
You jump in up front next to him. “Is Lightening McQueen winning the race?” you ask.
He doesn’t respond. More racing onomatopoeia.
A couple of older kids climb into the back seat. It’s time to get your son out. You dread it.
You tap his arm to pull him out of his head and into the present.
It doesn’t work. “Buddy, you’re turn’s over.”
“Stah, Ma-yeh. Stah, Ma-yeh.”
The father of the two in the back says something to his kids. Your neck burns. “Sir, I’m doing everything I can to get him out. I’m so sorry.”
Your husband cues in and tries to pry your son’s hands from the steering wheel.
“Stah, Da-yeh. Stah, Da-yeh.”
Your heart races. A meltdown is imminent.
Your husband reminds your son he has fishy crackers in his stroller. You remind him of the gift shop souvenir you promised and that after he gets to ride in a boat.
You lock eyes with your husband and nod. He nods back then peels your son’s fingers from the wheel.
Your son bites him on the forearm then flings himself onto the floor. He kicks and screams, “Nooooo!”
Hundreds of eyes bore into you. This never gets easier.
You back up and give your son some space and wait.
A few minutes pass. His screaming softens. His flailing limbs go limp. His clinched eyes open.
He looks at you. His face is reddened and moist with tears. “Do you need a hug, Buddy?” you offer.
He melts into your chest, and you wrap your arms around him. You close your eyes and shut out the world. You hold him until your breathing and his synchronizes. That’s when you know it’s over.
You take one of his tiny hands, your husband takes the other, and you walk out.
You just got off a race car attraction at a theme park with your mom and dad. It was super-fast and you love fast. You didn’t like the flashing lights. But that’s okay. When you see something that makes you uncomfortable you close your eyes, and it goes away. Now you are walking into a flashy showroom full of sleek cars.
A red sports car catches your attention. To you, it’s Lightning McQueen. You rush over and hop inside the open door.
You grab the steering wheel, rev the engine, and take off leaving the rest of the cars far behind.
Your best friend, Mator, is in the stands. “Hi, McQueen!” He waves as you speed by.
You’re in the lead, but a blue race car is closing in. You gun it. Only one more lap and you clinch the Piston Cup!
Something touches you. You ignore it. You can see the checkered flag. You’re so close!
A force pries your hands from the steering wheel. You panic. Your jaw clamps onto flesh. You’re confused and so, so angry!
Just a few yards from the finish line, the racetrack blurs, then fades to black.
You feel like you are falling. Fear replaces anger. Your limbs dart in all directions, trying to grab onto someone or something. “Nooooo!” you scream.
A few minutes pass. Your screaming softens. Your flailing limbs go limp. Your clinched eyes open.
You look up. You’re in a big room. A lot of people you don’t know are staring at you. You want to get out of the big room and away from the staring strangers.
Your mom asks if she can give you a hug. You melt into her warm embrace and once again you feel safe.
You hold your mom and dad’s hands and the three of you walk out.
An autistic meltdown is NOT a temper tantrum. It is NOT the result of bad parenting or bad kids. It is NOT manipulation by the child to get their way.
It is a heightened emotional response to overwhelming sensory input, anxiety, or stress. A temper tantrum ends if the child gets what they want. A meltdown must run its course.
Meltdowns may result in self-injurious behavior or aggression towards others. Caregivers must make sure the environment is safe, wait it out, and comfort the child when it’s over.
If you observe a meltdown in a child, even if you aren’t sure if the child has autism, don’t cast judgement.
Instead, back away, keep unsolicited advice to yourself, don’t stare, and after the meltdown is over, offer a smile or an encouraging comment. Empathy goes a long way!
Never look down on anyone unless you are helping them up.Jesse Jackson