The word “meltdown” in the general population has a very watered-down connotation. People familiar with autism KNOW meltdowns. I would liken it to a boiling pot of water.
Here’s what a meltdown is like for us (using the boiling water analogy):
Bedtime. Jammies. Almost 9pm (time for bed).
Jonah wants Daddy’s phone. Daddy says “no.” (we don’t get the phone at bedtime.)
[stove is turned on. water heating]
Jonah protests. Daddy puts Jonah in bed. Jonah tries to get back out of bed. Daddy holds him for a minute and puts him back in bed.
Jonah tries to get out of bed again. Daddy leaves the room and shuts the door. Jonah knows that if he gets out of bed, Daddy will leave the room.
[water is now starting to bubble]
Jonah starts crying. He wants Daddy to come back. Daddy comes back. Jonah is mad. Jonah hits Daddy. Daddy harshly scolds Jonah for hitting. Daddy gives Jonah hugs to soothe. Jonah is still mad and tries to hit again. Daddy puts Jonah back in bed while he is still crying. Daddy does not appreciate being hit.
[water is now approaching its boiling point]
Jonah is sitting on the edge of the bed now angry crying to get out of bed. Daddy stands next to the door with his hand on the door handle. If Daddy so much as moves his hand 1 inch, Jonah will run over and try to slap Daddy. Daddy scratches an itch on his neck. Jonah gets out of bed. Daddy walks out and shuts the door.
[water now at a full boil]
Jonah is furious. When Daddy walks back in and shuts the door behind him, Jonah tries to “slam” the door back open into the wall. There is no stopper and the knob will go right through the dry wall. Daddy stops this from happening by catching the door before it can touch the walls.
Jonah loses it. He screams. He has passed the point of no return. At this point, you CANNOT stop the meltdown. You cannot de-escalate, or talk to him because HE IS GONE. Jonah furiously tries to move Daddy out of the way so he can slam the door open. Daddy refuses. Jonah tries to reign down a series of blows on Daddy. Daddy catches his hands and holds them tightly. “NO.”
Jonah complies, but his rage needs an outlet. He finds a blanket to throw. Daddy thinks its a successful redirect. Jonah uses the blanket to drape it over a lighting fixture and pulls the fixture down. Daddy puts it back.
Jonah picks it up and throws it against the wall.
Daddy picks up the pieces and hides them in the closet (for now). Jonah tries to hit Daddy again. Daddy catches his hands. “NO.” Jonah finds a talking toy helicopter about the size of his head and hurls it at the wall. Daddy picks it up and puts it in the closet. Daddy looks for all other toys that can be thrown and broken or used as a weapon and puts them in the closet.
Jonah now is screaming and trying to get into the closet. Jonah does not even care that the door is wide open and he can leave his room if he wants. He wants to do as much damage as possible using the hardest things he can find that are now in the closet.
Any attempt at ANY talking to him is only an extra load to process in his already overloaded circuits and he will go into a primal blood-curtling SCREAM if you say ANYTHING to him, so Daddy endures in silence.
Jonah will throw anything he can pick up. He will strike, hit or kick anything in his way. If he had thought of biting maliciously, I’m sure he would be doing that as well at this point.
Jonah found a 2nd lighting fixture projecting the laser lights onto his wall and tried to throw it. Daddy puts it in the closet.
Jonah somehow manages to wriggle behind Daddy, who is blocking the closet door. Jonah tries to open the closet door. Daddy tries to keep it closed.
The closet door comes off it’s track.
Daddy picks Jonah up. Jonah flails and screams and kicks and hits. Daddy puts Jonah back on the bed so Daddy can shut the closet properly.
Jonah is screaming and has begun jumping from his bed mattress onto his knees on the wooden frame of the bed, landing hard on his knees. He is beginning to self-harm.
Daddy picks Jonah up. Jonah reaches up and hits the ceiling fan (also a lighting fixture). Daddy doesn’t know if it’s broken as well, but the room is now pitch black. While he’s looking up, Jonah finds Daddy’s phone in his shirt pocket and hurls it against the wall.
Luckily, it withstands the impact.
The noise of the impact is rather loud paired with the total darkness and the screaming subsides for a second.
Mommy pokes her head in. Daddy tries to nonverbally dismiss Mommy. If Jonah sees her in his room right now, it would not go well for either of us.
Jonah starts hitting Daddy over the head again. This time, Daddy does not stop it. It is preferable to self-harming. Daddy holds Jonah tight while enduring.
[water still boiling, but not boiling over]
Daddy flips the light switch to see if the light works. Nothing happens. Great.
Daddy realises that the ceiling fan has a pull switch also that Jonah must have pulled. Daddy flips the switch again.
Daddy turns the lights back off.
Jonah runs over and turns the light back on.
[water boils over again – any random stimuli will trigger the water to boil over at this point, especially hearing anyone say ANYTHING]
So now, Daddy needs to change locations to get him out of this cycle. An hour has now passed.
Daddy walks into Daddy’s room. Jonah (still hyperventilating and crying uncontrollably) follows Daddy.
Jonah follows Daddy into bed, grabs Daddy by the hand, gets him up, and walks him back into his pitch black room, still sobbing.
Daddy doesn’t close the door to Jonah’s bedroom this time so a little light gets in. Daddy puts Jonah back in bed.
[water back to ‘just’ a boil]
Jonah throws his covers and sippy cup at the wall.
Then, Jonah gets back up and walks around his room. Daddy lets him.
Just like that, Jonah flips the switch and stops crying.
Jonah walks out of his room and down the stairs. Daddy follows.
Jonah opens the fridge and looks around. Daddy grabs the milk. Jonah walks back upstairs, leaving the fridge wide open.
Daddy finishes filling the sippycup and tries to give it to Jonah. Jonah won’t take it.
Jonah walks into his room, gets on his bed, gets INTO bed and starts trying to fall asleep
Daddy puts Jonahs sippy cup in his bed. Jonah takes the cup and drinks. Instead of throws.
[water at a simmer – until he falls asleep]
THAT is what an autistic meltdown is in our house.
**continued the next morning**
Looking back on last night’s meltdown, I realize that it may be different for everyone. Some are worse than others.
Jonah is actually a very happy boy. He will always greet me with a smile. But meltdowns?
I don’t even equate my usual “Jojobee” with the “meltdown Jonah of last night (or any meltdown),” though of course, I love Jojo just the same.
I’ve used this analogy before, but it is true for us. I picture Jonah’s mind like the story from the movie Inside Out. During a meltdown, Joy has gotten lost. It is my responsibility to help fear/disgust/anger to keep Jonah from doing too much damage before Joy can make it back to take the controls.
All we can do is wait for her to find her way back.
Jason is a freelance photographer and graphic designer. He is also a parent of Jonny (8) and Jonah (3) who was diagnosed with Autism in December 2016.
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