Surviving A Meltdown

My wife’s birthday was this past weekend. It’s a day of fun for her because she gets to celebrate her anniversary on Earth. It’s a day of fun for me because I get to see that I’m not the only one slowly getting older with each passing day. She is too. Come to think of it, so are you. We all are. Sorry.

To commemorate her slow journey into the great unknown, she chose a hibachi grill near our house for dinner. It’s the kind of place with stovetop tables and a specialty cook who throws flaming hot pieces of chicken at your face while strangers cheer. He’s basically like Tom Cruise in Cocktail, if Tom Cruise in Cocktail wore a giant hat and juggled pieces of onion. Strangely, I kind of like it. In many ways, it reminds me of my reaction to Medieval Times. Even through my sometimes cynical eyes, I find a way to enjoy the show, no matter how often I’ve seen it.

So we packed into the car, motored on over, and walked into the crowded and cramped waiting area. That’s when my son had a meltdown.

To most people who don’t have a non-verbal child or one with Autism, that sentence sounds like the end of a story. After all, it’s called a meltdown. It conjures up images of nuclear war and mass destruction. It’s the name of a wrestler’s finishing move, a monster truck, or the starting point for a post-apocalyptic video game. Very rarely do you hear about the survivors of a “meltdown” immediately enjoying hibachi food.

But that’s what we did. They threw chicken fireballs at us too.

mdAs the parent to a child on the spectrum, I use the word “meltdown” as if it was part of the common vernacular but forget that many people have no idea what that means. While I can’t speak for everyone, I can speak for us. When my son has a meltdown, it stretches beyond what most think of as a “tantrum”. Sure, it may start that way, but the turns it takes changes the whole experience.

When Lucas wants to do something, he will plead with me through his eyes. He’ll take my hand and, with a desperate look on his face, try to drag me to whatever he wants me to get. If I say “no”, he might drop to the floor as a show of protest. All of that is normal kid stuff, though. Children act like that sometimes. My daughter, with words, did the same thing when she was little. Heck, she does the same thing now. I wish I could too. It looks like a fun release.

Meltdowns are different. His eyes don’t invoke a message anymore. They just look off with a sense of desperation. What he wants seems to change by the second. He’s pulling me in one direction, so I give in and we start walking that way only for him to suddenly change courses and get even more upset. He cries while he’s standing. He cries while he’s sitting. He cries while he’s laying down. In crowded situations, I hold him close and he will grip my hand with both of his before going boneless and dangle-twirling like a crying, screaming tetherball.

I used to worry about whether people were staring during these irrational tussles. Honestly, though, I never know. In that moment, I’m so focused on Lucas that I tune out the world. I take such extra care to make sure that his meltdowns don’t infringe upon others so there is no reason for anyone to even interact with us. I put up a mental barrier and deal with the issue at hand.

The way to deal with the issue at hand isn’t through punishment. At times like this, we don’t point our fingers or make him repeat “no, no, no.” To some, that seems like the only solution. After all, my son just freaked out in the lobby of a crowded restaurant. For those outside of our house and away from our situation, that seems a time for iron fist discipline.

I’ve learned to see that these moments, while frustrating for me, are worse for him. His emotions get so overloaded that he doesn’t know what to do. He’s unhappy, can’t process why, and soon he’s on the warpath at Benihana. So, we find somewhere off to the side, I rub his back, and tell him everything is going to be OK. Sometimes it helps. Sometimes it doesn’t. Either way, it’s what I do.

Of course, this meltdown wasn’t the worst he’s had by any stretch. Some of them have been pretty hard both emotionally and physically. Not all of them end with a happy Japanese meal. However, since I’m here today to tell you that, it’s a safe assumption that we survived them all too.

By the time we made it to the table, he was already starting to come around. When his jacket peeled off, so did his sad face. Although his food being the last to come off the grill caused some upset panic, he mostly held his positive mood for the rest of the meal. If anyone at our table had seen him earlier, no one gave any indication of it. I’d like to think that if they had, they’d forgotten all about it. Instead of letting that unpleasantness cloud their opinion, I’d hope they’d recognize the effort he made to turn it around. I’d hope they’d be proud of him for pulling it together so his family could enjoy dinner.

I know I am.

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