“I don’t know what sets him off. He suddenly gets into meltdowns and attacks his father and me,” a mother says to me. “At that time, he’s as strong as an elephant. It’s painful and emotionally draining. And once it’s over, he’s fine. As if nothing happened.”
“The calm ‘after’ the storm,” I think to myself.
“He’s already 18. What will happen as he grows older? Who will take care of him,” she breaks down.
I feel a familiar heavy feeling in my heart, as I reach out to comfort her.
Vishal, one of my students, is a 20-year-old talented ‘Master Chef’. True to his calling, he cooks tasty Indian curries and snacks. Viji, his mother, jokingly says that his dishes turn out perfect. Way better than hers!
However, between 2010 and 2013, he developed huge behavioral issues. He would have a meltdown at the drop of a hat and could erupt anywhere. They used public transport to get to school. Viji was stressed and always on tenterhooks.
So much talent, so many skills- but the meltdowns robbed the family of its joy.
We tried several strategies – with little success.
Watch this framework of a drumming activity of Vishal and Viji which dates back to 2014.
Viji sets a simple pattern. She introduces ‘just noticeable differences’. She changes the pattern and speed of drumming.
Vishal perceives this and keeps up with the changes. At 3:02, she switches to hitting with a spoon. He drifts off a bit.
She slows down and ‘scaffolds’ by giving the right amount of support. He gets back on track.
At 5:19, she switches from spoon to rattle. Watch the slow down again. It takes some time for Vishal to adjust.
Viji guides him beautifully through this. She ensures that he doesn’t ‘go off’ the edge. With her guidance, he is able to regulate himself. It ends beautifully with shared emotions and laughter between mother and son.
How does this work with meltdowns in autism, you ask?
When people experience uncertainty, they resort to fight or flight. This response is especially heightened among children with autism. We want them to experience the uncertainty but not become overly anxious. The idea is to feel it and yet not be overwhelmed by it.
Practicing this through a variety of activities helps us build resilience. It helps them regulate.
Let me repeat this – Regulation is the key. Over time, meltdowns reduce. I say this with conviction because I have seen it work with my students. The activity is not important. Thinking, decision making, being able to take changes is.
Viji worked on one of these activities every day. Lo and behold! What a miraculous change in Vishal! Enjoy this wonderful video of the mother – son duo.
Note the amount of responsibility he takes to prepare his favorite potato bhaji independently.
Vishal is able to manage his behavior in varied, surprising situations. Family and friends notice this and compliment him frequently. The family is thrilled. They are in a good place now. Viji’s dream is for Vishal to run a canteen someday. I know this dream will soon become a reality.
Follow this roadmap to guide yourself through overcoming the challenges your child faces, which could lead to meltdowns.
1. Take data on the meltdowns to understand why they happen.
2. Work on your child’s communication to ensure that he is able to express himself.
3. Ensure that your child gets 45 minutes of strenuous physical activity every day. Don’t compromise on this!
4. Pick any one of the suggested frameworks and build these up. Work on these for 15 minutes every day.
5. Do this for 1 month and note down the positive changes that you witness.
Do share the results with me. I am keen on hearing from you.
5 years ago, Mohit had a severe meltdown in the car. We were stuck in a traffic jam. The driver couldn’t pull over. We couldn’t get out of the car. For those 20 minutes, he was unbelievably strong. I was badly shaken when I reached home. So were Tanya and Anil.
Dr Rashid Merchant, a family friend, dropped in. He patiently heard me out.
And then he said something which I needed to hear: “Why are you moping around? You’re a fighter. So is Mohit. You’ve been through so much together. He’s back to normal now. Time for you to follow suit.” That pulled me out of my despairing mood!
I say the same thing to you.
Life is tough. But you’ve got to be courageous.
Yes, get up and fight for your dreams. For your child’s dreams… Fight, because your child is trying to tell you that he needs you more than you know.