One of the most difficult experiences parents and grandparents can have with an autistic child is when the child "melts down." Of course, every young child melts down now and then. But sometimes age is not a factor. Rather, it's sensory overload, or encounter with unfamiliar places, or difficulty transitioning, or something completely unknown that triggers the dreaded event.
Figuring out how best to deal with the intensity and unpredictability of the meltdown challenges the most resourceful parent, let alone grandparent. This can be one reason grandparents start to avoid offering to take care of the child as the child gets older. It's not so much a lack of interest or acceptance of the child as the feeling of being at a loss about what to do when the child can't seem to be calmed.
Here's an example of one of those moments:
We are at a play area in MacDonalds on a rainy day. Hardly anyone else is there, and our grandson is enjoying climbing quietly by himself. Suddenly, like all children, he feels the need to pee. Fine, that's why we chose this place--it has a bathroom. We consider ourselves very smart to have thought ahead. Our grandson is four and has cooperated with potty training at home. But...this is an unfamiliar place. Everything in this bathroom is shiny and makes a very loud noise, from the automatic toilet to the air dryer. He takes one look inside and refuses to enter. He expresses his fear by falling to the ground, kicking and crying and screaming. We're very willing to take him home to use the bathroom there, but he can't hear that suggestion because of his panic. We're painfully aware that other people in the MacDonalds are watching us with disapproving glares as we attempt to talk to him, lift him, do anything to get him out of there.
I wish I could tell you we have a foolproof way of handling such situations. We don't--and neither do his parents. I've looked at some books on the subject. In theory, all the ideas could work. Distract the child, one says. Prepare for the possibility of a meltdown and switch to an alternate plan before the child's reaction becomes unmanageable, says another. The problem is that we can seldom predict when a meltdown is going to occur. Sometimes it becomes clear later that he was about to get physically ill or that he was overtired or hungry. Every child can become reactive under those conditions. But sometimes it seems to be frustration around our interrupting a perseverative behavior because it's time to go home. Or he might become inconsolable when he's told he can't eat a cookie that fell in the gutter; somehow, another cookie just won't do. For a long time, getting a haircut aroused such bloodcurdling screams that it was impossible to stay in the barbershop.
What to do? Watching our son and daughter in law, who are thoughtful, resourceful people, has taught us a lot. They have discovered through trial and error that he generally needs time for his nervous system to adjust to fear-inducing situations. So when he melts down, they try to remain calm themselves and wait out the storm, if he isn't a danger to himself or others. Storms, we've seen, can often blow over more quickly then.
Or they don't push too much but give him some time as well as encouragement to decide that he can do the thing that is frightening him. That's how he recently actually agreed to get a haircut and did so without a fuss. He needed half an hour's quiet outside the barber shop first, but the wait was worth it to his parents.
Most amazingly, he now has mastered even the dreaded public bathrooms. I like to think that we helped him a bit with that. When he was calmer, outside MacDonalds, we talked to him about the ways we could reduce the noise in the bathroom, especially by preventing the toilet from flushing until he left and having him dry his hands with a napkin. He got interested in that idea and wanted to test it out. I guess you could call it one form of a Social Story, a technique that really does seem to help.
If you have other suggestions, things that have worked for you, please add them here. I'm collecting every idea I can find for us to try out, so that meltdowns can become simply "glitchy" moments instead of traumatic ones.