How do you handle a child with autism when he has a meltdown? originally appeared on Quora - the place to gain and share knowledge, empowering people to learn from others and better understand the world.
Answer by Stan Hanks, CTO of Columbia Ventures Corp:
I had one of these oh, a few weeks ago. My son was playing a computer game, and near as we can tell, was actually not doing anything that was interdicted, but when I came into the room, he jumped up from his seat and powered off his monitor, backing away from the desk.
Okay, not normal behavior, I instantly wonder what's up with that. So I went to turn the monitor on to see what I was missing, and he instantly melted down. In the end, I wound up having to physically restrain him across the room while his mum powered the monitor back on (finding nothing incriminating).
He was crying and screaming and trying very, very hard to keep her from accessing the computer the entire time, and collapsed into a sobbing shaking mess once she powered the screen back on.
He lost access to all things digital for a week, and to the particular game he was playing (an online multiplayer game) for, well, that's still ongoing and not likely to change any time soon.
Post-mortem, it's difficult to know what was really going on. It's clear that he believed that he was going to get into some sort of trouble for what he was doing. It's clear that even having it explained to him that if he didn't stop blocking access to the monitor, that he would be losing a lot, that didn't matter. He'd been triggered and his sole focus was on keeping that monitor from powering on (to the point of being willing to destroy it, which is where the restraint came into play).
That's where the autism part comes into play. As he ages, he's less obviously Aspie-ish, but the underlying issues are still there. He's much more literal than other people. He's got sensory processing issues that cause him to interpret his environment in ways that differ significantly from those around him. His regard for others is age appropriate (kids all believe they're the center of the universe) but expresses in ways that differ from what you might expect.
And all of that was on board here, in this incident.
We don't know what triggered him. HE doesn't know what triggered him; it's all lost in the fog of fear and anger that arose as soon as I reached to turn the monitor back on. There's no way to know, no way to retrieve that data.
And that's the difference. With a neurotypical kid, there is a good chance that you could sit and have a reasoned discussion with them, figure out what caused the meltdown, talk about things faulty in either their thought processes or behavior or both, and be reasonably assured that it would never happen again; it would be a teaching moment, and a learning moment.
With my son? That's all off the table. He just knows that he melted down. And remembers pretty vividly that I had to restrain him as a result, and that he really didn't like that very much.
We have talked about it since, several times. He disclaims any knowledge of why he melted down, and I believe him. I've also seen significant behavioral changes. This weekend we had a near-identical repeat of the precipitating incident (I surprised him walking into the room, he powered down the monitor and backed away) and this time, I asked him to turn it back on instead of reaching to turn it on myself.
Did that make the difference? Was it because he was not playing a game in which he was interacting with other people in a potentially "not approved" manner? Was it because it was early in the morning versus at night? Was it because he learned from last time? No clue.
I'm still recovering from a hand-and-wrist injury, and was at the time. I'm not operating at full effectiveness physically, and it was challenging to restrain him without injuring either of us. It was also challenging not to go to "pain compliance" measures, which is straight-away what I would have done with a non-family member in a similar state.
I now have a new piece of information: that he's willing to get really physical and violent over things that don't make sense to me. This scares the crap out of his mum; he's nearly her size and much stronger.
I wish I had better answers for the "what to do" part. I'm really big and stronger than your average bear, so wrapping him up in a big bear hug from behind and holding onto him wasn't a huge problem, other than being worried that I'd re-injure myself.
I've had, through one of those "in the right place at the right time" flukes that seem to populate my life, police pain compliance and non-lethal force training. That's serious overkill for this, but super handy.
If you're in a place where you think you might need to physically need to do something to keep your child, yourself, and others safe, I highly recommend that you get a civilian version of that. Teachers require that teachers in special ed and other similar circumstances have training in Crisis Intervention & Behavior Management.
I'd encourage you to see if you can get some of that onboard for yourself.
And I wish you the best of luck in a really unpleasant situation.