Autism and the Battle with Mysterious Meltdowns

Having two boys on the autism spectrum, I have come to anticipate meltdowns. These are different from temper tantrums or hissy fits (these ones, I’m prone to). There are many articles delineating their difference, and through the years I’ve learned to correctly identify whatever it is I’m dealing with, and thus respond accordingly.

More importantly, I’ve become better attuned to the brewing stage of meltdowns. I’ve made the effort to identify triggers in order to avoid them and to understand what’s going on when meltdowns do happen.

Nonstop Meltdowns

However, there are meltdowns, and there are long spells of seemingly aggressive, violent, and self-injurious behavior. We had this with Cameron, who’s now 9 years old, from 3-6 years of age. These were outlier episodes. Cameron is very chill. When he was a toddler and first exhibiting signs of autism (they only emerged at 1.5 years – he had always been on time/ahead with his milestones before then), we initially kidded around about him being so cool, like he didn’t have time for cutesy and silly behavior that was typical of kids his age. If he paid any attention to you, it was like being noticed by that perfect but aloof guy in a high school romance trope. That he was very handsome (he is; that’s not just a mother talking) certainly completed the cliché. That was a fun, entertaining way to look at it, except that it turned out to be autism.

Anyway, for about two weeks every year, Cameron would have this spell of him crying and angrily thrashing around almost nonstop. Both of us would come out of those episodes with minor cuts and bruises. He’d be fine or back to his regular ways after, but I’d be licking my actual and metaphorical wounds in despair long after. Don’t worry; the licking is figurative. I’ve happily noticed though that those weeks of marathon meltdowns hadn’t transpired in the last couple of years.

And the Fun Continues

Last year, his younger brother Sawyer had his own autism diagnosis. Oh, we’d known he was on the spectrum long before the official diagnosis, but we thought we’d get the official certification as well so we could be advised by a professional, and, of course, so he could be eligible for PWD privileges.

Right away, the developmental pediatrician told us that Sawyer was incredibly intelligent – and this was a boy who was pretty much non-verbal. Side note: I hate using the term for my boys because they do have language and they would use it to ask for stuff they want. They can identify things like champs, but couldn’t figure out how to use all those words they know in a practical way. It’s just easier to throw the non-verbal label out there to manage other people’s expectations.

In any case, the doctor told us that Sawyer’s autism was mild and that he manifested many signs of giftedness. She recommended a regular preschool instead of SPED. Okay. I have always been committed to homeschooling, but I got excited about sending the boys to school. I had already picked summer classes for the boys to join – School Readiness for Sawyer and Life Skills for Cameron. And then the pandemic happened. At the very least, that stupid virus was a monkey wrench thrown into the new course we were to take on our autism journey.

Autistic and Gifted

The thing about Sawyer is that we could tell he was very smart. He taught himself how to read and write really early, like Marguerite, their big sister did, but he had been more challenged in that he wasn’t even conversing. He is extremely curious and interested. He would get into everything and want to try everything we were doing. It’s like the opposite extreme of Cameron’s coolness. Sawyer is red hot in his buttinski-ness. He has always had an air of mischief about him. He also had a very volatile temper. He laughed easily and got mad easily.

Shortly after New Year’s Day, he seemed to be in a perpetual rage, alternately crying and pouncing on those around him. We all fell victim to these attacks, but I was most frequently on the receiving end. It was a lot like trying to tame a bobcat, except more heartbreaking.

Meltdowns on Steroids

We tried to figure out what was going on with him. He didn’t seem to be in pain. Sometimes he’d laugh after screaming angrily. As much as I hate to say it, it often felt like a demon possession. He would thrash around on the floor in abandon, kicking his legs, uncaring of hurting others or himself. He’d ask to be hugged and carried, and then ambush us in the middle of being comforted. I was frankly at my wit’s end. Cameron’s episodes seemed like leisurely walks in the park compared to Sawyer’s.

We persisted in finding an explanation for the behavior. We all had theories coming out the wazoo. My mom thought that he was frustrated because he was so smart but had disabilities that hindered his learning. I thought that he was frustrated about not being able to communicate better in a verbal way (in his fits, he would often scream out a spate of random words, but, at the same time, he was also often successful in expressing himself, e.g. “I’m sad!” “Help me!”). Mark thought that he was experiencing restless legs (growing pains?) and remembered getting them himself at around Sawyer’s age, and they had been bad enough that he would cry because of them. We also thought that it was a sensory thing, that he was reacting to a stimulus that we just couldn’t detect yet.

Calming Tricks and Hoodoo

We had tried a diverse range of calming methods. Mark would roll Sawyer up in a soft blanket like a burrito. He would also tirelessly massage his son’s limbs.  I made a calming roller blend and calming play dough with lavender and bergamot essential oils. He definitely received lots of bribes from aunts and grandparents who wished nothing but to get back our mischievous but amusing little imp.

Sawyer’s birthday was on January 26, and while he was beginning to calm down, those lulls were often traitorous, presaging an ambush that left scratches and bruises on Sawyer and his hapless target. Understandably, his presents this year mostly had to do with calming him down. My sister gave him a much nicer bedtime projector lamp than the one we had (it was tacky; we moved it to the garage before Christmas where it projected red and green stars in the dark). My cousin got him kaleidoscopes and a fidget popping toy.

My mom got the kids gummy melatonin (not as a present), but we’ve only used it once to underwhelming results. It wasn’t for regular use, but we were trying to go back to an earlier bed time, and then, of course, there were those punishingly sleepless nights with Sawyer’s meltdowns. He refused to take one for some reason, by the way, while Cameron and Marguerite both did go to sleep  early but woke up in the wee hours of the morning. We’ll give it a go again when we encounter sleeping issues.

I’m also going around the house now to scope out the right ceiling beam from which to hang the boys’ therapy swing. My sister had given it to Cameron on his birthday, but we have yet to install it. Obviously, we’re getting all the tricks we could possibly conjure out to make sure we are well equipped to deal with a repeat of these episodes.

Of the tools we have used, I can say that the play dough, the popping toy and the lamp have been effective. The lamp’s effect can vary, however. It lulled Sawyer to sleep while it fascinated Cameron so much that he sat in front of it and watched for a long time.

These days, Sawyer’s episode is dwindling down. He’s still given to crying when he doesn’t get his own way, and I think his habit of holding his breath until he’s very red in the face has gotten to be, well… a habit that we have to distract him from. He has also learned to curb his impulse to grab and kick, and it does seem that whatever was causing him to fling himself down in a self-inflicted wrestling power bomb has gone. I’m not going to speak too soon and say that the episode is over, but I am praying that it is.

Anyone on the Same Boat?

Have you had any experience with this kind of episode? Do you know with certainty what caused it? What action did you take? I hope an informative, helpful, and supportive discussion about this can be started in the comments.

Oh, and if you’re wondering how I’m coping, it’s with Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups. Don’t judge.

In the meantime, here’s the recipe for the calming play dough that I made:

 

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