I recently had a very insightful exchange with an autistic friend of mine about meltdowns. She explained to me that during a meltdown, she is fully aware of her surroundings and the people’s reactions to her; but unable to control her body. The meltdown is very much in control, until she is able to calm her mind and body to recover.
This exchange gave me so much insight and reinforced my thoughts/approach to Mike’s meltdowns.
My approach to meltdowns developed first from an acknowledgment that my son has a disability; he isn’t engaging in these behaviors to ruin my day. He is unable to fully control his behaviors. When you view a meltdown with the same compassion, urgency and concern as you would a person having a seizure; you tend to recognize that your role is to remain calm and have a plan.
With this understanding, I developed an approach Mike’s meltdowns to help him learn to self-soothe, with the intent to help him avoid or decrease the frequency and/or severity of his meltdowns.
My approach, in essence, was to utilize calming techniques I learned in yoga. In addition, I wanted to act as a guide for him. I kept my behaviors very ritualistic in nature. I saw significant benefit in providing a framework of consistency for my own behavior. He soon knew what to expect and it removed his fear of an unknown reaction from me. It also allowed him to slowly regulate his behavior to mine.
As soon as the meltdown began, I would move Mike to a safe surface, either carpet or a bed. I would remain silent, extremely calm and model deep breathing. Over time, he joined in the deep breathing with me. I placed NO DEMANDS on him. I simply remained physically connected. By ‘physical’ I’m not implying that I’m restraining him. I would gently place a hand on his arm, back, or leg. On occasion, I would apply mild rhythmic strokes. I used a deeper pressure to provide sensory input, but I gauged my pressure on his reaction. At times, a simple touch was all that he tolerated. I followed his lead and never forced the connection. If he retreated, I followed him to remain physically present and connected.
If the meltdown intensified, I became more sedated. If he looked at me, I provided a compassionate smile, but no notable reactions. The only language I ever used was a simple chant, “You’re a Big Boy – You Can Do It.” I would alternate modeling the deep breathing and quietly repeat the chant to him.
Over time, Mike joined me in the breathing and chanting. My behavioral framework provided him the structure to recover from the meltdown. He could focus on and join my ritualistic behavior to regulate and calm his body and mind.
Eventually, the breathing and chanting became a tool for him to utilize to self-soothe. He would engage in them when he was under stress. I believe that he eventually began to sense his body melting down and used the breathing and chanting to regulate himself.
He continues to utilize these tools today and recently offered the strategy to his sister.
My daughter is a new driver and was navigating a drive-thru window for the first time. She wanted to switch seats with me to avoid the drive-thru. From the backseat we quietly heard, “You’re a Big Girl – You Can Do It.”