Anatomy of a Melt Down

So we went out to dinner last night. Nothing fancy, just a local sub shop. And by “we,” I mean me and five of the six kids—Katie had taken our oldest to soccer practice. We’ve been doing this since soccer season started a few weeks ago. I figured the weekly outings would give everyone good practice for those more rare times when we all go out to a “real” place for dinner.

Generally, the kids have been doing pretty well in these outings. They’ve become more aware of their environment and are learning a greater degree of empathy for each other—something ASD folks are not too good at. But today was another story. We tried a different place than usual, and that change of routine in itself could be enough to put kids on edge. But there was more. The place had two TVs on the same channel—very loud. So there was the added sensory stimulation. Even worse, the TVs were showing some kind of wrestling competition—only for some reason, it was a match between a man and a woman. And one final ingredient: our twelve-year-old daughter was having an anxiety-filled day due to an upcoming exam.

So what happens when you put an anxious aspie girl in a new, loud environment filled with images that she finds objectionable? A combination of broad comedy and high drama. Here’s what happened.

The Attack of the Legal Beagle.

My girl is on a never-ending quest to control her environment, especially when it’s unfamiliar to her. She figures that if she can shape it, she won’t have to deal with the sensory assaults that come from the unpredictable. So, assailed by the new place and the sound of the TVs, she began to feel threatened and overwhelmed. She couldn’t control the TV, so she decided to control her brothers, both of whom were fascinated by a socially-sanctioned, live-action version of one of their favorite video games.

“Daaad! Tell these sons of yours to stop watching the TV! They know you don’t approve!” Then, scowling and pointing an accusing finger to the boys, she went on. “Turn your eyes away right now!”

“It’s okay,” I said, as calmly as possible. “The match is over now; all they’re doing is interviewing the wrestlers.” I rubbed her back and tried to keep her eyes fixed on mine. “Don’t worry; I’ve got this one. Just try to eat and don’t let the boys get to you.” So I got her to relax. A bit. And then. . .

“Daaad!” she cried, looking at our seven-year-old. “Why is he eating cheese? You know he’s lactose intolerant. Put that sub down right now!”

“It’s okay. Some cheeses are okay for him, and we made sure he’s got the right stuff.”

Brief pause. Then her gaze fixed on her five-year-old sister.

“Don’t sit like that! You’ll fall out of your chair!” I intervene.

Then she turns to our nine-year-old son.

“Ae you drinking Mountain Dew? Don’t you know it has caffeine in it?”

I jump in again. “It’s okay. It’s Sierra Mist, and that doesn’t have caffeine.”

After dinner, we head out to the van. Seeing our three-year-old toddling along on his own, she shouts out to him, “Get out of the road! You’re gonna get killed!” He was only two feet away from the van, clearly safe.

“I have to sit in the front seat! You know I get car sick!”

The Real Girl.

I should set the record straight: She was having an off day. She is usually a sweet, good-natured girl who enjoys helping her family. The past few Mondays, when we went out for subs, I knew I could rely on her to keep the younger ones peaceful while I got their drinks or took one of the boys to the bathroom. I knew I could ask her to take her sister to the bathroom and expect no incidents. (Granted, I knew she’d fight for the front seat, but that’s SOP by now.)

But last night was just too much. All you had to do was look a little more closely, and you’d see that behind the defiant, vigilant facade was an anxious, almost terrified little girl. Her body was hunched over, her back and shoulders forming a protective shell around her. Her brow was furrowed, with her eyes shifting from left to right. She just couldn’t process all the visual and auditory noise—not with the anxiety about her impending exam and the mental exhaustion that such anxieties brought about. And so she melted down. Loudly and publicly, with next to no awareness of the effect her actions had on everyone around her.

This could have happened to any one of our  ASD kids. Not necessarily the “Legal Beagle.” That’s her schtick more than the others. But each of the kids has his or her own triggers. Each manifests his or her social/environmental anxiety in a different way. It just happened to be her turn today. I’m just grateful no one else decided to blow a gasket!

Adventures in Aspergian Living.

This is a snapshot of what life with Aspergers can be like. Heightened sensitivity to external stimuli, combined with an inability to process this stimuli, can make a person very anxious. But lacking the social intuition that most of us have, aspies don’t know how to communicate their anxiety, let alone defuse it. So they remain trapped in their angst, until the pressure builds, and it finds an outlet.

In these situations, the wisest approach is to calm the person down, assure him that it’s not as bad as it seems, and help him learn that he is not at the mercy of his environment. Alas, the gut reaction is to correct the outburst and to reprimand the rhetoric. But that only heightens the anxiety and worsens the melt down, causing a downward spiral.

It has taken me a couple of years to learn this. Mind you, I don’t claim to have it down to a science, and sometimes I’m really surprised by the trigger that will set someone off. So there are still times when I feed the fire instead of put it out. But whether or not I get it right all the time, I do know what the deal is. And that knowledge is very comforting. If nothing else, it helps me to laugh at situations like these instead of get anxious or upset myself. It’s taught me not to care too much about how other people view us. I know we’re a quirky family, and in a way, I usually thrive on the never-a-dull-moment life we lead.

My Heroes.

Of course, none of this really excuses outbursts like last night’s. My daughter is going to have to learn how to manage her anxieties better. She’s going to have to learn the ins and outs of social interactions. She’s going to have to work harder than most of her peers. It’s part of the package. But at least Katie and I know what’s behind much of it, so we can help her. It is important that she understand the ways in which it isn’t her fault—and the ways in which it is. She’s going to have to learn the difference between an explanation and an excuse.

Yes, she’s got a lot of work ahead of her. So do the others. But they’re learning the ropes. They’re doing the work. They’re getting better at it, and they’re not complaining about it. For that reason alone, these kids are my heroes!

5 thoughts on “Anatomy of a Melt Down

  1. Leo,
    I have really enjoyed your blog and can totally relate. It is really nice to hear someone write about the ins and outs of autism with such understanding and mercy. You have a great attitude. I know it’s not always easy, but sounds like your working through it very well.
    Know your autism family is always here to support!
    Cindy Valentino

    • Thanks, Cindy. I often think of you and Steve as I write these posts. It’s so good to know other people who are walking this path . . . Especially when we have so much else in common. Blessings on the Valentinos!

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