Why does something small set off an autistic child?

As back to school time approaches, I have been thinking about all of the anxiety that a typical day includes for an autistic child.  Because they process things differently, every experience takes a lot of effort.  Going to school requires separation from their home where they hopefully are comfortable and understood, entering into a loud and crowded environment where they are over stimulated, many transitions, being quiet, sitting still, the possibility of unanticipated things happening and more things that do not always come naturally or easily for an autistic child.  No wonder their bodies are on high alert.  That is a lot of stress and anxiety just to process a typical day.  So, when an autistic child looses it, it may seem like a small thing to everyone else, but for them it is the straw that broke the camel’s back.  They are no longer able to find a solution to any problem that comes up and they meltdown and then calming down is not a skill that comes naturally either, so the meltdown last forever.

To help people who don’t have autism understand what a typical day may feel like, I offer this senerio.  Today you have a very important meeting at 8:30 and you need to meet with your boss at 8:00 to go over the plan.  Due to the stress, you couldn’t sleep last night, your alarm doesn’t go off, you overslept and you have to rush to get out the door.  When you get in your car, it won’t start.  You find a neighbor to jump start your car.  Finally, you are on your way, with 30 minutes to make a 45 minute drive.  Of course you get stopped by every light before hitting the freeway and in an attempt to make up time you are speeding.  Wrong day to do that, you get pulled over.  You miss your 8:00 meeting with your boss for which you call while still en route and profusely apologize.  Despite all the delays, you run into work right at 8:30 and make the meeting.  Everything worked out ok, but how do you feel?  Your nerves are fried, right?  Your heart is beating 100 beats a minute, right?  You’re mad for getting a ticket.  This is how an autistic might feel on a typical day.  Then, after your meeting, your spouse calls and says he/she can’t pick up the kids after work.  You can’t possibly leave early when you screwed up this morning.  You yell at your spouse instead of thinking of alternatives like finding a babysitter, working from home in the evening or coming in early the next day.  Can you imagine if you felt like that every day?  Now can you relate?

I try to remember all the challenges my son faces when he is having a meltdown.  It is not always easy to remember and I want it to be easier for him, but all I can do is try to understand, be patient and help him calm himself until he learns the skills to do it himself.  It does not help to get mad at him because that will only make things worse; he can’t help it.  It doesn’t help to get mad at the situation because that won’t change how things are.  He is slowly but surely learning the skills he needs to make it through life’s stresses; it will just take him a lot longer than a non autistic because there are more things that do not come naturally or easily for him.  So, please remember to be kind to kids and parents when they are dealing with a meltdown, they are doing the best they can.

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One Response to Why does something small set off an autistic child?

  1. Dylan says:

    Overall a good post. I’m grateful you’re taking time to understand your son, I wish my parents understood me.

    The one problem I see is that there’s a lot of text boxed together. A little bit of white space goes a long way to make the reading less intimidating!

    Nonetheless, thank you for this very well-thought list!

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