Last week I promised that we adults cannot take it personally when a child with autism experiences a meltdown. I explained that meltdowns signal that the child needs help and skills need to be taught. Before taking a closer look at what those skills might be I thought it would be frame the meltdown in a way that many of us can relate…hopefully, I am not alone on this one!
Warning: Embarrassing self -disclosure ahead.
There are times when I just lose it. Any semblance of self- control eludes me and I fold like a cheap suit. The sight of me relapsing to the state of a crying child who just simply cannot cope, is not pretty. For the most part, I hold myself together in front of the public and colleagues, but, my dear friends and family get to witness the ugliest moments. Once in a while, life delivers a perfect storm of personal and/or professional situations mixed with hormones, lack of sleep or a deepening sense of overwhelm and BAM – I am a puddle! Not a pretty sight, I will admit. However, over the course of 50 years I have learned a few things that have helped me to lessen the frequency and even the intensity of those less than my best moments.
For example, I know enough to recognize the building of storm clouds. I have learned to tune into my body’s physiological responses to stress and I am able to use my thoughts to ‘combat’ those negatives voices that egg me on and push me to the brink. It has taken years, but I am more willing to listen to my body’s need for nutrition, sleep, exercise and relaxation so that storms can be averted. I have even learned enough to act on those needs more regularly!
I also have some tricks to use when having a nap or running to the gym or not viable options. When I feel my frustration barometer rising I can reassure myself that the feelings are temporary and I will be able to cope. I also decide what treat I will gift myself for staying cool and calm. I know instinctively to take deep belly breaths and keep oxygen moving to my thinking brain (the prefrontal cortex). I also know when to walk away from a situation.
I share this shameful truth about myself because I think that it is critical to put ourselves in a child’s place when he or she is losing emotional control. It helps us respond with empathy when we choose to consider how we would feel under a stressful circumstance. I am quite sure that if we were scolded, yelled at, dragged, smacked, or humiliated in front of others during a time of emotional overwhelm we would be less than motivated to ‘relax’ or ‘snap out of it!’
To be totally honest, when I am distraught, I cringe at the sound of talking. Even hearing the words “Just relax, take a deep breathe,” are beyond irritating. I do not want anyone nattering in my ear or raising their voice with me when I feel as if my world is exploding. What I do need, is to cry and release the pent up emotions. Then when the worst of the storm has passed – and only then – I will be willing to reflect and discuss a plan of action.
Shame and anger have no place in our dealings with children with autism. Neither shame nor anger does anything to reduce emotional overload in a child. In fact, the only thing worse than a child who is losing it, is a child and an adult who are out of control!
So, what skills do we use to regulate our emotions? How can we help our kids with autism to regulate their emotions?