I could kind of tell by some of Joel’s behavior this afternoon that it was coming. His overall energy level felt different. His actions and movements were quickened, more abrupt, like he was agitated.
Then it happened. I was in the kitchen finishing up the dishes and the door bell rang. It was one of Will’s friends asking if he could come outside to play. I stood there with the door cracked open just enough to communicate, but not enough to allow our dog, Jack, to run outside. Joel, who was watching a favorite t.v. show, realized the door was open and he joined Jack at the door and proceeded to try to open it further and also make a run for it. It was all I could do to apologize to the boy and shut the door in his face before both of these wild boys tried to bolt for it. Joel was upset that he couldn’t leave and he ran to his room where he had accrued all of the chopsticks we own and played with them briefly before returning to his show.
I thought all was returning to order and went back to what I was doing when the neighbor boy, unsatisfied by our last exchange, returned to inquire as to whether or not Will could come out and play. Will did not want to come out and play and the little boy tried to break my heart by informing me that he had no one to play with and that his mother would not let him come into the house at the moment because she was cleaning house and he would mess it up. My mind sidetracked briefly as I considered my very untidy living room where Joel had created three separate piles of dvds, torn magazine pieces and, of course, his handful of chopsticks. Before I could sympathize with the boy, Joel was back at the door and attempting to escape. I quickly said, “Sorry, but I have to close the door, little boy” and tried to calm Joel who just wasn’t having it.
Meltdowns are different for different people. For Joel, it is both scary and can turn violent. He doesn’t scream, but he does make sounds loudly and oftentimes he cries. His face is a mixture of anger and fear. He kicks and pinches whoever is near by. He sometimes throws himself into furniture or runs at one of us. It is imperative that we adjust our voices to a quiet, soothing tone. Yelling at him will not calm him down. Neither will spanking him. It is often a whole-family ordeal to calm him. For a really bad meltdown, a nice bath does the trick and maybe offering something to eat or drink. Then, one of us, usually me or his dad, will sit with him and hold him gently. Sometimes he won’t let us hold him and he retreats to his bedroom where he might kick and bang on the walls until he eventually calms down. Today, Maya and I worked together to calm him. First, we turned on a favorite movie that has a lot of singing which he loves and I held him, as much as he would allow, and talked to him in a soothing voice. He drank some water and slowly settled down. Like I said, it was pretty mild. It started and was over in about 20 minutes time.
I know that people who do not live with Autism may see his behavior and think it is a temper tantrum he is throwing, but they would be wrong in that assumption. The world is a very frightening place for him and even the slightest change in his routine can shake up his entire world. Because he cannot speak, he cannot vocalize his emotions and fears. He shows these fears physically. When he reaches out and pinches me, I do not take it personally, becuase it is not meant as a personal attack. At that moment, Joel is afraid and he is trying to protect himself. If I were to yell at him at that moment, it would only further terrify him. My job at that moment is to help him realize he is in a safe place.
Right now, things are “back to normal,” or whatever that means in our house. Order has been restored and all is right with the world. I know there will be more meltdowns in the future, but I don’t know when they will occur or what will set them off. We just have to read the signs and be prepared.