The thing about sensory processing differences is that they are there all the time, sensory cravings alongside sensory defensiveness in a world full of light, noise, movement and touch means it can be surprisingly easy to get overwhelmed. The thing about autsitic masking (think swan with crazy fast, unseen feet working so hard to camouflage and do the right thing even when it feels like you are an alien in a world where the social expectations and rules are always just out of reach) is that it takes so much energy, so much focus to survive or overcome worry after worry just to make it through the day. So it doesn’t need much of a niggle, misunderstanding, or unexpected moment to be knocked off balance and all the bottled up worries and stress to burst out. Meltdowns happen. They are inconvenient, stressful, messy, noisy, attract unwanted attention, are painful and exhausting – for all of us, public or not.
With a tantrum or angry outburst there are words, frustration and a battle for control. As a mum I know to reach for clear boundaries, definite options to move forward and get ready in the back of my mind for a suitable consequence if calm is not restored (for B when she was younger the consequence that worked best in these situations was her doll being put out of reach for the rest of the day… these days it’s much more likely to be screen time that gets affected if one of them simply refuses to stop and calm down.)
But a meltdown is entirely different. For us meltdowns are non-verbal, mute – there is sometimes shouting and screaming but there is no verbal communication. And there won’t be until a long time after the meltdown subsides and things are becoming regulated again. Meltdowns are not a choice, not consciously attention seeking – or a tool being used in a battle for control. A meltdown is out of control for the one experiencing it. As a mum I know this is not the time for negotiation, talking it out, or reaching for clear boundaries. My job is to keep things safe, and be there.
In a meltdown what I see when I stop and look into my child’s eyes is not frustration and willful battling but fear and the kind of rage that fear can be. It’s a panic attack. Their whole body is involved, flooded with adrenaline for fight or flight. The heart is pounding, their arms and legs lashing out in defensive attack. Things can be thrown as if in self defense, they can hide tight in an impenetrable ball, they can run as if their life depends on it. It is as if everything – every sound, touch, thought, feeling is coming at them. They are overwhelmed. They cannot find the ground. It is terrifying, exhausting. As a mum I know this is not the time for discipline, or consequences. My job is only to stay close, keeping them safe.
The aftermath of a meltdown takes a long time to go through. Rest has to happen, some withdrawal from demands. There is a need to feel secure and grounded again, either through a tight cuddle (T needs this often) or a familiar safe space and activity (usually a repetitive one). There will be no words for a long time. Often there is little to no recollection of the details of the meltdown at all, just sadness and regret at the thought that they might have hurt us. As a mum all I want to do now is give reassurance and be an undemanding loving, accepting presence.
It is often difficult to pinpoint the triggers of the meltdown. With a tantrum it is often much clearer what the whole thing is about. With a meltdown this isn’t always the case. With hindsight Andrew & I can work out some common contributing factors and we work to minimize these. We also see warning signs sometimes and if we can we can steer T or B towards a quiet space, or a calm activity which may go some way to prevent a meltdown. But this isn’t always achievable or possible. Sometimes we have chatted with our girls about what might have triggered the fear response, but this is rare. Often we find even approaching the subject of triggers can bring back the overwhelming feelings and anxiety visibly increases. Instead we talk together in calm moments about emotions, and physical reactions to emotions learning and exploring vocabulary so that understanding grows in the hope that emotions themselves can be ‘sat with’ more easily, and be less frightening in and of themselves. Hoping also that understanding and vocabulary can help everyday emotional regulation which in itself will build some resilience – and help me to understand my girls better so I can support them better.
I am in awe of my girls. Having had bouts of panic attacks I know they are overwhelming, scary and exhausting. Facing them and enduring them takes courage. Getting through the day knowing that it could happen takes courage. And my girls don’t just ‘get through’ most days, they are adventurers and explorers who are interested in life, who face new challenges all the time. Meltdowns are not at all easy. They are not tantrums. They need love and support.