The Autism parenting course that I did last November talked about anxiety in terms of it being a cup, that gets dripped into and filled up over time. Could be days, could be hours, depends on how big the drops are. When the cup is filled, a meltdown occurs. That’s why the apparent “trigger” is not the whole story, not the answer that will help us to understand why the meltdown is happening.
Let me talk about Sunday.
I took Melon and Boy to the Chinese New Year Celebrations in town. We went on the train. Melon loves trains, but we had to wait 20 minutes for one.
We got off the train, they have reconfigured the entire train station in the town centre, and I got lost trying to find our way out.
We didn’t go to the book shop (where Melon ALWAYS goes with Grandma every time they go into town).
It was really crowded. There were food smells, lights, drums, dancing dragons.
We got a table in a cafe. It was busy, but we got to sit down and eat some warm food.
Some drips evaporate.
Melon needed the toilet, and we had to use the small ones in the cafe. With a handryer in. Melon was crying, but calmed down and managed to get through it.
Drip drip drip.
Melon went on a couple of children’s fairground rides – a Ferris wheel, then a carousel. Then the carousel finished and I told that it was time to get off.
DRIP. Spillage. Meltdown.
Poor Melon was screaming and roaring. Her little cup of anxiety was spilling over. It wasn’t because the ride was over, it wasn’t because of the toilet. It was because of everything. She kept yelling “go to bed. Melon go to bed!!”. There was no place quiet we could go, so I just hugged her to me as best I could with the pushchair and walked back to the train station. She needed to know and see that we were getting out of there.
She had come out of meltdown by the time we got to the station (20 minutes later). She was even talking about the food in the cafe, and the fairground rides. I asked if she had a good time, and she responded “have some FUN!!” (Which is a yes, BTW…).
I felt pretty crappy. I know she had a good time, I KNOW she did. I could see it on her face so many times throughout the day. But she also had a pretty huge meltdown, she doesn’t have many of those. I questioned whether I should have done another activity, one that was less demanding, still enjoyable but one where I had greater control of the situation.
That, right there, is one of the internal dilemma’s of Autism parenting for me: do I expose Melon to experiences that I know she’ll enjoy, but which might test her, sometimes beyond her little limits? Or do I structure her life and ours to avoid such testing situations, even though I know she would get benefit and enjoyment from them? Will she ever be able to learn where her limits are, and to develop her coping strategies, if there aren’t occasions where she has to test them?
My gut instinct as Melon’s Mom is to continue to expose her to new experiences and situations wherever appropriate. She has developed some excellent coping strategies in her short lifetime, and I have a theory about how, in part, this has come to pass:
Boy was born when Melon was 3.5, and up till that point Melon came EVERYWHERE with me: concerts, drama group rehearsals, parish meetings, shopping trips, meals and lunches with my friends. One summer, as Hubs had a particularly dreadful shift pattern, Melon was my “plus one” at four different weddings. Her language and social communication issues were always present, but the signs of her sensory differences were minimal, and her meltdowns were very infrequent. She showed clear signs of happiness and enjoyment during all of these occasions and trips.
In retrospect, Melon must have experienced sensory overload, anxiety and the build up to meltdowns throughout that entire period. Yet, she managed, she developed her stimming-orientated coping strategies that she still uses successfully every day to manage overload and anxiety. I know that it is not the whole story, but I do believe that the variety of social and life experiences that Melon was exposed to in those first 3.5 years helped to lay the foundations for her ability to cope so well with social situations now that she is older.
As Melon grows older, she will become increasingly able to articulate and express her wants, her needs, to choose her own activities. But I will always encourage her to try new things, to broaden her horizons, and I hope that her life experience will be a little richer for it.