One mom shares her story and how she uses empathy and compassion to help her autistic child through meltdowns and other tough times.
Health and wellness touch each of us differently. This is one person’s story.
I sat in the child psychologist’s office telling her about my six-year-old autistic son.
This was our first meeting to see if we would be a good fit to work together toward an evaluation and formal diagnosis, so my son wasn’t present.
My partner and I told her about our choice of home-schooling and how we’ve never used punishment as a form of discipline.
As the meeting continued, her brows became hawklike.
I could see the judgment in her expression when she began a monologue about how I needed to force my son to go to school, force him into situations that make him extremely uncomfortable, and force him to socialize regardless of how he feels about it.
Force, force, force.
I felt like she wanted to stuff his behaviors into a box, then sit on top of it.
In reality, each and every autistic child is so unique and different from what society deems typical. You could never fit their beauty and quirkiness into a box.
We declined her services and found a better fit for our family — for our son.
I’ve learned from experience that trying to force independence is counterintuitive, whether or not your child is autistic.
When we push a child, especially one prone to anxiety and rigidity, their natural instinct is to dig their heels in and hold on tighter.
When we force a child to face their fears, and I mean screaming-on-the-floor petrified, like Whitney Ellenby, the mother who wanted her autistic son to see Elmo, we aren’t actually helping them.
If I was forced into a room full of spiders, I would probably be able to detach from my brain at some point to cope after about 40 hours of screaming. That doesn’t mean I had some kind of breakthrough or success in facing my fears.
I also assume I’d store those traumas and they’d invariably be triggered later in my life.
Of course, pushing independence isn’t always as extreme as the Elmo scenario or a room full of spiders. All of this pushing falls on a spectrum ranging from encouraging a hesitant child (this is great and should have no strings attached to the outcome — Let them say no!) to physically forcing them into a scenario that has their brain screaming danger.
When we let our children get comfortable at their own pace and they finally take that step of their own volition, true confidence and security grows.
That said, I understand where the Elmo mom was coming from. We know our kids would enjoy whatever activity if they would just try it.
We want them to feel joy. We want them to be brave and full of confidence. We want them to “fit in” because we know what rejection feels like.
And sometimes we’re just too damn tired to be patient and empathetic.
But force isn’t the way to achieve joy, confidence — or calm.
When our child has a meltdown, parents often want to stop the tears because it hurts our hearts that our kids are struggling. Or we’re running low on patience and just want peace and quiet.
Many times, we’re coping with the fifth or sixth meltdown that morning over seemingly simple things like the tag in their shirt being too itchy, their sister talking too loudly, or a change in plans.
Autistic children aren’t crying, wailing, or flailing to get at us somehow.
They’re crying because it’s what their bodies need to do in that moment to release tension and emotion from feeling overwhelmed with emotions or sensory stimulations.
Their brains are wired differently and so it’s how they interact with the world. That’s something we have to come to terms with as parents so we can support them in the best way.
So how can we effectively support our children through these often loud and thrashing meltdowns?
1. Be empathetic
Empathy means listening and acknowledging their struggle without judgment.
Expressing emotions in a healthy way — whether through tears, wailing, playing, or journaling — is good for all people, even if these emotions feel overwhelming in their magnitude.
Our job is to gently guide our kids and give them the tools to express themselves in a way that doesn’t hurt their body or others.
When we empathize with our kids and validate their experience, they feel heard.
Everyone wants to feel heard, especially a person who frequently feels misunderstood and a little out of step with others.
2. Make them feel safe and loved
Sometimes our children are so lost in their emotions that they can’t hear us. In these situations, all we need to do is simply sit with or be near them.
Many times, we try to talk them down from their panic, but it’s often a waste of breath when a child is in the throes of a meltdown.
What we can do is let them know that they’re safe and loved. We do this by staying as near to them as they’re comfortable with.
I’ve lost track of the times that I’ve witnessed a crying child be told that they can only come out of a secluded space once they stop melting down.
This can send the message to the child that they don’t deserve to be around the people that love them when they’re having a hard time. Obviously, this isn’t our intended message to our kids.
So, we can show them we’re there for them by staying close.
3. Eliminate punishments
Punishments can make children feel shame, anxiety, fear, and resentment.
An autistic kid can’t control their meltdowns, so they shouldn’t be punished for them.
Instead, they should be allowed the space and freedom to cry loudly with a parent there, letting them know they’re supported.
4. Focus on your child, not staring bystanders
Meltdowns for any child can get noisy, but they tend to go to a whole other level of loud when it’s an autistic child.
These outbursts can feel embarrassing to parents when we’re in public and everyone is staring at us.
We feel the judgment from some saying, “I’d never let my kid act like that.”
Or worse, we feel like our deepest fears are validated: People think we’re failing at this whole parenting thing.
Next time you find yourself in this public display of chaos, ignore the judgmental looks, and quiet down that fearful inner voice saying you’re not enough. Remember that the person who is struggling and needs your support the most is your child.
5. Break out your sensory toolkit
Keep a few sensory tools or toys in your car or bag. You can offer these to your kid when their mind is overwhelmed.
Kids have different favorites, but some common sensory tools include weighted lap pads, noise-cancelling headphones, sunglasses, and fidget toys.
Don’t force these on your child when they’re melting down, but if they choose to use them, these products can often help them calm down.
6. Teach them coping strategies once they’re calm
There isn’t much we can do during a meltdown as far as trying to teach our children coping tools, but when they’re in a peaceful and rested frame of mind, we can definitely work on emotional regulation together.
My son responds really well to nature walks, practicing yoga daily (his favorite is Cosmic Kids Yoga), and deep breathing.
These coping strategies will help them calm down — perhaps before a meltdown — even when you aren’t around.
Empathy is at the heart of all of these steps to dealing with an autistic meltdown.
When we look at our child’s behavior as a form of communication, it helps us view them as struggling instead of being defiant.
By focusing on the root cause of their actions, parents will realize that autistic kids might be saying: “My stomach hurts, but I can’t understand what my body is telling me; I’m sad because kids won’t play with me; I need more stimulation; I need less stimulation; I need to know that I’m safe and that you’ll help me through this torrential downpour of emotions because it scares me too.”
The word defiance can drop from our meltdown vocabulary entirely, replaced by empathy and compassion. And by showing our children compassion, we can more effectively support them through their meltdowns.
Sam Milam is a freelance writer, photographer, social justice advocate, and mother of two. When she isn’t working, you might find her at one of the many cannabis events in the Pacific Northwest, at a yoga studio, or exploring coastlines and waterfalls with her kids. She’s been published with The Washington Post, Success Magazine, Marie Claire AU, and many others. Visit her on Twitter or her website.