It’s hard on parents when a child has a meltdown. Even harder if it’s unexpected. And if the child has autism? Well, let’s just say the subsequent combustion can be a mini supernova!
That’s what happened to us two days ago.
But before I recount the incident, a quick background for new readers to my blog.
My Son Has Autism
I’m a 53-year-old father to two sons, one 14 and the other 12 this year.
My youngest was officially diagnosed with moderate autism in 2017. Since then, it’s been a roller-coaster journey as my wife and I struggle to understand this life-long condition and how we can help him cope each year as he grows.
Without going into a myriad of details about autism, let’s just say for simplicity that autism is a spectrum of permanent neurodevelopmental disorders. Because it’s on a spectrum, no two persons diagnosed with autism will have the exact same challenges.
However, what is fairly common across the spectrum of autism is that many will struggle to varying degrees with basic daily living skills like tying shoelaces or staying focused. Also common is the struggle to read social and emotional cues in others in order to navigate daily human interactions that the rest of society intuitively picks up along the way and takes for granted. Unfortunately, this often means they are shunned or ostracised by society at large, like social pariahs who don’t know basic social etiquette.
As if that’s not enough, persons with autism often struggle with what’s referred to as comorbidity issues like sensory processing disorders. Sights, sounds, touch, tastes, and scents can either over or underwhelm them separately or in unison.
Autistics also struggle to regulate themselves well in the face of changes to routine or external stresses, like being in a new situation or environment. They may react by whining, crying, howling, hopping (mad) on the spot, gesticulating wildly, or demonstrating behavior that indicates they are melting down.
Not exactly something any parent would willingly sign up for if given a choice of how they wish their kid to turn out. But it is the lot we draw, and the life caregivers like me live almost daily.
A case in point? What took place two days ago after my wife and I brought our son home from school.
“I Want My Toy But I’m Too Scared!“
It was a school day no different from any other. Except that, instead of driving my son straight home after picking him up from school at 1 p.m., we detoured to his mom’s office to fetch her as well. Her plan was to leave the office earlier that day and work from home in the afternoon.
This meant that instead of arriving home for lunch at 1.30 p.m. like we usually do, we only got home at 2 that day.
After parking the family car, we gathered our bags and made our way up to our home on the eighth floor of an 11-floor apartment block. I was hungry. I had barely slept the night before (thanks to a persistent cough) and had finished four continuous hours of in-person teaching prior to fetching my son and wife. So all I wanted to do when I got home was sit down and eat a hearty, overdue lunch.
The perfect time of course for the dam to break!
“MY TOY! I WANT MY TOY!!” yelled C, my son. After setting foot into our living room, our dear son suddenly realized that he had left his toy back in the car downstairs.
“Well, just go down and get it then.” His mom responded.
“BUT I’M SCARED! I DON’T WANT TO GO ALONE. COME WITH ME?”
“Son, you’re 12. What is there to be afraid of? Just take the elevator back down, go to the car, and take your toy. We will unlock the car remotely for you from our window facing the car park. You’ll be back up again in no time.”
As I listened half-heartedly to this exchange between mother and child, my instinct told me it was about to escalate. So I did what any decent co-parent would do at this point. I dug my chopsticks deeper into my bowl of noodles and ate on!
For Fewer Meltdowns, Give Kids With Autism More Errands
In hindsight, our son was probably both hungry and tired (it was already past 2 p.m.). Whatever the reason, that initial exchange rapidly deteriorated into a shouting match between him and his mom. And a massive meltdown. He was alternating between howling and begging his mom, me, his brother, and just about any adult he could find to go downstairs with him.
Of course, we resisted. Although we could have agreed to help him, we knew this was solely his responsibility. He had to do this on his own and build up his independence and courage. Plus, it wasn’t the first time he’d ventured out alone to run errands. Whenever he’s with my mother-in-law (his grandma), she will send him out on errands. As his parents, we too have also challenged him now and then to do stuff without us.
However, looking back now at the extent of his meltdown two days ago, I suspect we’ve not done enough in this department to build his confidence and independence.
After 20 seemingly endless minutes of non-stop histrionics, my son finally realized no one would accompany him despite his sonic entreaties. Yet it was clear too that he was unwilling to be without his toy. So our dear friend finally capitulated and ventured down. But mind you, not without ranting, raving, and hopping madly all the way so the whole apartment block could hear him.
Thankfully, he returned home a few minutes later calmer, with his toy safely in hand, all set to wolf down his lunch. That’s not to say he didn’t complain disgruntedly about the whole affair to anyone who cared to listen. But at least we averted another storm in a teacup.
Having been jolted awake by this incident, my wife and I have decided one thing. We best double down on planning more errands for our 12-year-old son. And more opportunities to level up his daily living skills.
To build courage and independence. To help him survive one day without us. And, hopefully when that day comes, without a fear of thunderstorms as well.
But that’s fodder for another day’s blog post!