A few years ago I was out with my daughter (7 at the time) when she had a meltdown. It was a very cold and windy day and this provoked sensory overload for her and she could not cope. We were very near our home but I could not carry her and she would not walk. This was intensely traumatic for the both of us. I had to try and drag her down the road by putting my arms under her arms and walking backwards. In the end we were rescued by an incredibly kind taxi driver and a passing stranger who helped me bundle her into the car and I managed to get us both home safely.
Our staff writer Luke has written about how to help autistic people recover from meltdowns, but what about parents and carers? Supporting a child or adult during a meltdown, especially when you are in public and safety is an issue, can be intensely traumatic. I would go so far as to say it is like being in a car accident.
A meltdown can come out of nowhere. It may involve violence and physical aggression. It may require you to restrain your child simply to keep them safe. You may experience this in front of a lot of people, if you are in a public situation, which can be stressful and embarrassing.
After the taxi rescue incident I remembered reading that being the parent of an autistic child can bring the same kind of stress as what a combat soldier experiences. I was traumatised by this incident and wanted to write something to help others in the same situation, as it can be very isolating.
What makes a meltdown traumatic?
As parents and carers we are driven to keep our child(ren) safe at all times. Meltdowns generally:
- are totally unexpected;
- can be quite physically demanding, requiring you to restrain and/or carry your child and/or deal with physical and/or verbal abuse from your child;
- are intensely stressful if you are in public on your own, as passersby most likely will have no understanding of what is happening or why, or why you and your child are behaving the way you are;
- may cause you intense emotional stress, especially if your child is hurt during the meltdown.
These and other aspects of a meltdown situation can leave you frightened, exhausted, drained and worried about the future.
How to get through a meltdown
Unfortunately, there is no set, works-every-time advice I can offer here. However, here are a few tips that have helped me:
- Pretend you are in a bubble. This may sound silly or that I am trivialising the situation. However, I have found that if I simply imagine it’s just me and my child going through this thing, then I can focus on her needs and ignore the general public.
- Travel light. I realise this is a tall order given the amount of stuff our kids require when leaving the house! It works for me to carry just one bag, like a rucksack, which has both my things and her stuff.
- Keep keys accessible. I put my keys on a quick-release lanyard and keep them round my neck when we are out. This way if I need to get into the car quickly, I’m not fumbling round in my bag for keys, risking that my child may run off while I do this.
- Ask for help. Another tall order, as this can be very hard to do. Sometimes though, you just need someone to hold a bag, or help you get your child from the middle of the pavement to the side. I once was trying to help my daughter who was lying on the ground in the middle of the Harbourside while I was holding an ice cream cone, which was melting and dripping down my arm. How I just wanted someone to take the ice cream cone away! Some people will not help and some may not understand what you are trying to say (as asking for help when you are upset and possibly incoherent is difficult). However, most people are good, and want to help, and will help you if you ask specifically for what you need.
How to recover
Do not underestimate the need for you to take time to recover from a meltdown situation. Just as you would take time to recover from an accident or emergency, your mind and body need time to recoup from what you have experienced.
Here is what I know about trauma recovery (please remember I am not a doctor, just a mum sharing with you what has worked for me):
- Get some sugar into your system. Just like your mum might have made you sweet tea when you were a kid, sugar will help you feel better, rather quickly (obviously, if you are diabetic, please take care with this advice). A bit of chocolate or orange juice, or sweet tea will soothe you.
- Wrap up warm. Just as some of our kids are calmed by deep pressure, a heavy blanket, or even just a warm blanket, can soothe and aid recovery.
- Talk to someone. Don’t keep your experience to yourself. It may feel horrific and even embarrassing, but if you can share with another person, especially another parent/carer of an autistic child, what you have gone through it will help you feel better. Talking is great therapy.
- Take time out. This is no small thing you have gone through, so it’s important to take it seriously. Take time to recover. Cancel plans, take a day off, give yourself a ‘duvet day’.
- Focus on the positive. Don’t dwell on what’s happened. Meltdowns can end as quickly as they have begun. Don’t focus on what’s happened but look instead for positive things happening in your life and the life of your child and family.
- Learn from the experience. What, if anything, could you have done differently? There was likely nothing you could have done to stop the meltdown happening, but if you can think it through and gain insights for the future, this may help if you find yourself in a similar situation. I was once with my daughter while she was having a meltdown in the entryway to a museum (we had been visiting and it was closing, and she did not want to leave). I so wish I had just asked the museum staff if we could come back in for a few minutes so I could calm her down. I will certainly do that next time.
- Get back on the horse. If your child has had a meltdown in a specific place, don’t let it put you off going there, especially if it is a place your child or family enjoys. Don’t assume that every visit to that place will trigger the same reaction; it was likely a one-off in response to many things.
You are not alone
Every parent of an autistic child experiences meltdowns, is frightened and upset by them, feels embarrassed sometimes – is human, just like you. No matter how on top of things you feel you are, a meltdown can still happen. It does not mean you are a bad parent or carer, or that you should have done anything differently.
Some other helpful links:
How to recover from emotional trauma
Meltdown information from the National Autistic Society