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  • Writer's pictureHannah's Hope

Melting Down.

Sam Milam is a writer, photographer, social justice advocate, and mother of two. Her article titled "When My Autistic Son Melts Down, Here's What I Do," was published by in 2018 and has been medically reviewed since then. She wrote the article to highlight some things that she does when her son with autism has a "meltdown" in the hopes of providing some help to others who may be in her situation. She opens her story by discussing the first time her and her partner met with a psychologist about her son and the challenges they were facing with him. They discussed their choice to home-school their child and their frequent decision to not use punishment as a form of discipline. Milam explains that during this meeting, she could see the judgement written all over the psychologist's face. In that moment, she felt as if the psychologist was trying to force too much on her son; she was trying to "stuff his behaviors into a box, then sit on top of it." As we know, each autistic child is unique and different from what is considered to be "typical" by societal definitions. It's impossible to fit all of their beauty and quirkiness into a box. Before introducing her helpful tips, Milam points out one idea that she has learned from her own experience. She notes: "There is a difference between forcing behaviors and encouraging independence." Forcing a child with autism to do something can be counterintuitive. They are naturally prone to anxiety and rigidity, thus making them want to dig their heels in and hold on tighter. Which implies that forcing them to face their fears, is not actually helping them. Instead, it is best to let your child get comfortable at their own pace and let them take their own steps; that is when true confidence and security grows. So what can you do during a very loud, possibly, very public, meltdown. The first step is to be empathetic. "Empathy means listening and acknowledging their struggle without judgement." Expressing emotions is good for all people, especially if it is done in a healthy way. As parents and caregivers, your job is to gently guide your children and give them the tools they need express themselves in a way that doesn't hurt themselves or others. It is important you try to empathize with your child and validate their experience so they may feel heard, which is crucial, especially for children who often feel misunderstood. The next thing you can do is make them feel safe and loved. Sometimes children can get so lost in their emotions that they cannot hear anyone trying to calm them down. The best thing to do in these moments is just sit and be with them. Trying to talk them down in these moments is often just a waste of breath. Stay as close to them as they will let you to show them that you are accepting their emotions and want to make them feel that they are safe. The next thing you can do is eliminate punishments. Punishments tend to make children feel shame, anxiety, fear, and resentment. Children with autism are not able to control their meltdowns, for the most part, so they should not be punished for them. They should instead be allowed the space and freedom to scream or cry with a parent present to let them know they are supported. In moments like this, it is also important that you focus on your child, not staring bystanders. Meltdowns for a child with autism can be loud and reach a more intense level than any other child. These outbursts can make a parent feel embarrassed when they happen in public and people are staring. You may hear the judgement in their voice when they say things about your child or you may feel as if it seems like you are failing at being a parent. However, the best thing to do in these moments is ignore them and quiet the voice inside your head that tells you that you're not enough or not doing enough. Try to remember that the only person who needs you in that moment is your child; they are struggling and need your support. Next, break out your sensory toolkit. This is the assortment of sensory tools or toys that you keep in your car or bag that you can offer to your child when their mind is overwhelmed. Every child will have their favorites that can help them in these moments, but generally, some useful items are weighted lap pads, noise-cancelling headphones, sunglasses, or fidget toys. Try your best not to force these items on your child when they are melting down, but have them available for your child to choose when they need solace in those moments of chaos. The last thing you can do is teach them coping strategies once they are calm. Trying to teach them when they are in the midst of a meltdown is not going to serve much purpose, but when they are calm and of a peaceful mind, you can work on emotion regulation together. Milam says that her son enjoys nature walks or practicing yoga daily as well as deep breathing. Coping strategies, such as these, will help your child calm down, perhaps before a meltdown, even when you're not around. Empathy is going to be the root of all of these steps to dealing with a meltdown. Try to view your child's behavior as a form of communication as it will help you understand that they are struggling rather than just simply being defiant. Focus more on the root cause of their actions, so that you can better understand what they are telling you through their meltdowns. Defiance is a word that often comes to mind when a meltdown occurs, but this word needs to drop from our vocabulary. It should be replaced with empathy and compassion, so that you can effectively support your child through their meltdown. With these simple tips and tools, it will make each meltdown make more sense and allow you to help them through any unsettling feelings and emotions they may have at any given time.

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