Offer Support, Not Judgment: Autism Meltdowns Are NOT From Lack Of Discipline

“She has a problem with her mother,” you said, dear ex-mother-in-law, as your son and I struggled to safely remove our screaming, kicking autistic daughter from her sister’s 8th birthday party.

Another birthday party that I would miss out on because somebody has to be with our daughter when this happens. “She has a problem with her mother,” you stated again, emphatically (to my mother, nonetheless — you had quite the nerve!), as we got her safely into the van, where my tears were finally able to release in my own mommy meltdown.

You see, Julie (let’s just call you Julie), it had been a difficult few days.

This meltdown was the tip of the iceberg of meltdowns (which ironically didn’t seem to be melting) that had occurred as we navigated through some recent kid-centered events of the summer. Just the night before, we had arrived home from a trip to my three kids’ favorite amusement park, where much fun had been had, as well as a couple of giant, exhausting meltdowns. This is par for the course; it’s to be expected. Sometimes, it’s avoidable, and sometimes not.

We try to prepare her for unexpected events that might throw her off, but still, things happen. We try to teach and encourage coping mechanisms, but they don’t always help. We want her to have fun and be a kid, but her childhood is frequented by episodes of rapid and complete loss of control of her emotions. I can’t harness them in those moments. Nobody can. She rides it out with support, like a roller coaster with a tight seat belt and strong metal bars to hold onto, and we try to prevent it. It’s all we can do.

Your granddaughter has the type of high-functioning autism that used to be referred to as Asperger syndrome. To people who don’t know her well, she may appear one of two ways: one way is perfectly “normal,” albeit quirky. She has a magnetic charm and intelligence when she is feeling calm and sociable, and possesses the verbal abilities of an intellectual adult. Some might say, there’s nothing “wrong” with her!

The second way is less pleasant. When she is in an intense stage of anxiety, she can get very angry, and she uses her words as weapons. Her fight-or-flight response is overwhelmingly strong, and she tends to impulsively run, kick, and scream. She usually pins the blame for this physiological and mental response on something silly; a trigger that is like the straw that breaks the camel’s back. At the amusement park, it was because they didn’t sell corndogs. The real reason, I presume, was overstimulation and sensory overload. Some might judge and say I shouldn’t have taken her there, but I say, it was worth it because she had a fabulous time before and after the meltdown.

The latter response can trigger strong reactions in people. Some are concerned when they see and hear it, like the person who contacted security when they saw a kid yelling at, running from, and kicking her mom. This lead to something good; it helped. Some friendly, understanding, security guys offered to do whatever it took to help me keep her safe. They understood that autism can cause children to behave in this way.

Some people judge harshly when they see a kid losing control. This doesn’t help. They think she’s just rude and needs to be “kept in line,” better disciplined. They assume that the mother who is struggling with her just doesn’t set limits or spoils her. They simplify something that is complex. They don’t want to believe that they would ever have a problem like this, so they point the finger. They judge. Thankfully, most of the people I’ve encountered haven’t been this way, but many of them have.

I kept your granddaughter safe while she was struggling. I felt her pain, and my pain, and the pain of her siblings who are also affected by her behavior. I felt the embarrassment and imagined the judgment. I took it all on because I love her and she’s worth it. Of course I did! It’s happened far more times than I can count. Do I like the behavior that she displays mid-meltdown? No. Do I encourage it? No. Do I set limits with her? Yes. Do I try to teach her better ways to cope? Yes.

Am I a perfect mother? No. But I do my best.

Autism mothers have been blamed for their kids’ behavior since the refrigerator mother theory, and probably long before. People are generally more accepting, understanding, and educated about autism, but we still expect judgment. It’s always in the back of our minds, and we’re always wondering what we can do to help make everything better. Sometimes we feel like failures in spite of our best efforts.

I didn’t need you to kick me when I was down, Julie. I already felt like shit. I’m also guessing that it didn’t actually bring you any closer to your granddaughter with whom you’re struggling to connect, or make you feel any better about your own failures as a mother (yeah, I know you weren’t a perfect mother either because we are all imperfect). Your comment hurt deeply and helped with absolutely nothing. I’m writing this, so that I can let it go and carry on being the best mother I can be.

So in the end, the “problem with her mother” is that she can only love her­; she can’t “fix” her. She can’t rewire her entire brain. She can’t rescue her from her own fight or flight response; she can only help her ride it out safely. She can’t break through to her in the moment of a meltdown with logic or reasoning or choices or discipline or even empathy (although empathy helps most). She can only talk to her about what happened after an incident when she’s calm and her brain is actually capable of logic and reasoning. She does this in the hopes that, someday, she’ll gain the self-control to halt the neurobiological spiral that so quickly leads to these meltdowns.

But you didn’t choose to see this, did you?

You reverted to a primitive, black-and-white response that is (thankfully) becoming outdated in our evolving society. You can choose to evolve and see the nuances that color the emotional brain and reflect upon them with empathy. You can choose to be educated and study the brain chemistry that’s involved in an autistic meltdown as well as the physiological response. You can look at all the factors involved, and if you don’t understand it, you can ask the experts. You can do anything that it takes to understand her better without throwing verbal stones and placing blame. You can appreciate the gift of your challenging yet gifted granddaughter without vitriol and judgment.

And of course, you can choose to appreciate and respect “her mother.” Her mother who is here, day in and day out, loving her, supporting her, and doing her very best.

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