A Meltdown of Nuclear Proportions

Day 11: Autism Awareness Blogathon

Every autism parent remembers the first massive meltdown their child experienced. Now you know I am not talking about some ear shattering, fury induced supermarket tantrum. Oh no, this is when the ferocity, the decibels, the duration, the intensity shake you to your core because you can’t even recognise your sweet child as they are so overcome by raging emotions that their very beings seem to distort.

Given that it’s Autism Awareness Month, it’s good to know the difference between tantrums and meltdowns.

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Here is my experience.

When he was little, my boy liked a dummy (pacifier). No actually, he loved it. With passion. I called it the ‘dum dum’ and later on, when he started using some words, he called it his dunny (for those people who are not Australian, please click through for the meaning of this word in colloquial Australian language – you will be amazed and possibly amused).

As he grew L became more and more particular about which dummy he would like to use. It had to be a certain shape and by the time he was about two years old, he got it down to two that were acceptable to him. This was well before we had a diagnosis or had seriously started thinking about autism.

It was about this time when we made a trip to one of the large suburban shopping centres (mall) in our city. I’m not a big fan of these places, they are all largely the same. They are ugly. The food is very mediocre and you can’t get a good coffee for love or money. However, sometimes, you’ve just got to get in there and buy some stuff.

One of the greatest developments in these centres in recent years is the parent room. It’s a room where there are some couches, comfortable chairs, a play area, a microwave, sink, private rooms for feeding & changing babies etc. These parent rooms can be like a quiet haven away from all the shopping madness.

On this particular shopping trip, L was sitting in his pram and as we moved through the crowds, somehow he lost his dummy!! We tracked back to see if we could find it but…no. I went to buy a replacement and we made it into the parent room just as the distress meter was going into the red.

There were a few people in there. Little babies being breastfed, other children happily chattering in the fenced off play area, families catching a breath in a space where the kids can’t run off.

As I got the new dummy out of the packaging (why so difficult packaging people??) my boy was ramping up on the screaming. I was getting a few looks and a couple of sympathetic smiles. Finally, freed from its plastic prison, I didn’t even bother to wash it before I handed it over to L. He grabbed the dummy and while he inspected it there was a moments reprieve in the screaming. It was the same brand as the lost dummy, same shape, similar colour and design. He tried it and a nanosecond later he spat it out and threw it on the floor disgusted and enraged. This was not the dummy he loved, softened by many hours of sucking and chewing. This was hard and it smelt and tasted WRONG.

He lost it. He raged. He threw himself on the floor and screamed blue murder. Nothing I did would calm him. Everything I did just seemed to be making it worse. I looked up about 10 minutes in and realised that a few people had left the room. Packed up quietly and just left, mid-feed. I couldn’t even look at the few people who were still there, I was trying not to cry myself. I felt so utterly incompetent and totally at a loss as to how to calm this unleashing.

After another 10 minutes of holding it together while L continued to meltdown, I did manage to look up and see that there was a dad in the corner with a set of twins who happily continued to play through all the noise and mayhem. I must have looked absolutely desperate by this stage and he caught my eye as I looked for anything to give me the strength to get through this experience. He raised his eyebrows and winked one eye at me while he pointed, smiled and clicked his mouth.

He was the last man standing (well…sitting) in the parent room. Everyone else had cleared out and he was having a good laugh while my little darling and I were going through this torturous experience. Then he said ‘We’ve all been there. Don’t worry’.

In that moment, I relaxed. L was just starting to wind down and I knew he would be exhausted from all the screaming and emoting. This stranger had done the one thing that I actually needed – a kind word, some understanding. I smiled back, feeling a little lifted. I looked at my sweet little boy, smiled at him, picked him up and cradled him loosely in my arms. He was spent and compliant.

We got out of the shopping centre, went home and both of us slept.

Soon after, he bit the tip off the very last acceptable dummy and the time had come to say goodbye to this little plastic friend. Surprisingly it only took a couple of nights to get through the dummy withdrawal phase. He hasn’t put another one in his mouth since. The meltdowns still make an appearance when the moon is full and the planets align. But there’s nothing like your first.

Feel free to share your own meltdown stories here.


2 thoughts on “A Meltdown of Nuclear Proportions

  1. Sam’s dunny was a passy (pacifier). He had them until age 5. They were one of the very few things in life that would—sometimes—quiet him during a meltdown. It was murder to break this habit. Sam had passys stashed all over the house. If we tossed one, he pulled out another from some hidey-hole that only he knew of. (And yes, he too could taste the difference between a new one and old one—for that matter, you could cover his eyes and he could taste the difference between the red one, the blue one, etc.)

    The last passy tore and went in the trash one evening while my wife was at work. Sam screamed for hours on end and called for his passy upwards of a million times. When he tired from this, he cried pitifully with a broken heart. My wife had a couple of emergency paasys in the house, but I didn’t know where they were—good thing: I would have given them to him that night.

    When my wife got him she chastised Sam for his behavior. He hung his head and agreed—reluctantly—that the passys were all gone. 5 years old.

    • I found an old one of L’s in the garden the other day! They are devilish little things but when they quiet the screaming and soothe the little beastie, well I’m all for them. It’s funny how something that has been so important to them quickly becomes a ‘nothing’.

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