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  • Holiday meltdown: a mom shares her perspective
Dec
23

Holiday meltdown: a mom shares her perspective

ChristmasTreewebI have two boys, ages 9 and 11, with autism. They are two completely different, wonderful kiddos. Most people who do not know them would not know they have autism, and others who do know sometimes don’t see it either. I know and my husband knows. We see their ups and downs and have seen how far they have come since their preschool diagnosis.  

We prep our boys anytime we go anywhere. We talk about routine and what will happen when. Celebrating the holidays at Grandpa and Grandma’s house is no exception. First dinner, then presents.  We have our fidgets, our safe place. We’ve been doing this for years now, and they love Grandpa and Grandma’s house and seeing the family. What could go wrong?  

ChristmasTreewebI have two boys, ages 9 and 11, with autism. They are two completely different, wonderful kiddos. Most people who do not know them would not know they have autism, and others who do know sometimes don’t see it either. I know and my husband knows. We see their ups and downs and have seen how far they have come since their preschool diagnosis.  

We prep our boys anytime we go anywhere. We talk about routine and what will happen when. Celebrating the holidays at Grandpa and Grandma’s house is no exception. First dinner, then presents.  We have our fidgets, our safe place. We’ve been doing this for years now, and they love Grandpa and Grandma’s house and seeing the family. What could go wrong?

When our boys were younger, the holidays presented the hardest days. While presents were opened, one of our sons would go downstairs and play by himself, and at dinnertime our other son would not sit at the table and refused to eat. These scenarios are not atypical for parents of children with autism. After a few years of working through these obstacles we were good, or so I thought. 

This year, our family arrived early and brought in our bags and presents. Once the rest of our relatives arrived, 16 in all, everyone talked together while the food was prepped. As all of the grandkids are adults, with the exception of our two boys, the relatives were content to gab, and our youngest son played by himself. Our oldest was nowhere to be seen. I set out to see what he was up to.

It didn’t take long to find him laying in the top of the bunk bed, kicking the wall.  “What’s wrong?” I asked.  He said, “Everyone is talking and that is SO BORING.” We talked about what he could do, including coming out and being in the room with our relatives.  He can choose whether or not to listen, talk or not talk, draw in his art book, play with his brother, or just hang out. No pressure. 

He told me he wanted to relax first. I gave him space as he is getting older and I know it is good if he can work through this himself. He has anxiety and, although he knows and loves every person in that room, he still feels it. I told him I understand and everyone has those feelings at times.  

I left the room and returned in about 10 minutes after he still had not come out. I heard the wall shaking and his head banging against it. Others heard it also. I blocked them out and said, “I got this.” My husband came in and we stopped our son from banging his head by holding it and then rubbing his shoulders, head and arms.  

Our son had his “needle stuck on the record player.” That’s how we describe it. He is stuck and needs to reset the play button. We asked him what’s wrong. He said, ‘I can’t go out there, I just can’t. I don’t know what to say and I’m scared.”  He covered his head with a blanket and was crying, shaking and soon beyond talking to us.   

As his parents we knew he was having a meltdown and was getting past the point of no return. He had to let it out and we needed to keep him safe while keeping our own emotions in check. We listened, talked, gave sensory input and tried everything we could.  

As I sat there and listened to him I thought about when he was younger. He used to have hours of intense meltdowns and now he only has two or three a year. His triggers range from a tag in a shirt, to what to wear to being in a large group or unknown environment. I thought about how only a few weeks ago he played trumpet in his school band concert. He not only played in a packed gym, he also came up to the front and read an introduction to a song. He showed little anxiety prior to going up on stage. Then I thought about how sensitive he is and how he cares and feels so much of what others feel. I wish I could know what is going through his mind in these meltdown moments.  

I continued to rub his back and he eventually calmed to a whimper. The worst is over. It has been nearly 30 minutes of a relatively small meltdown. A light bulb goes on! He needs a connection to another person (not Mom and Dad). I got my niece, who took the boys to Valleyfair this summer and whom he adores. I asked her to go in the bedroom and just hang out with him. She did and within 5 minutes he was out of the room and sitting at the dining table next to her.  

Now everyone is seated at the dining table and passing food. I am sitting at the other end of the long table from him. I am watching, waiting for the other shoe to drop. He looks up and over at me then gives me a small smile and a thumbs up. I give one back. I know he is OK.

He was brave and overcame his fear. It took another person connecting with him and changing his viewpoint. 

As parents we are constantly trying new things to see what works in the moment. I know we are moving into the tween and soon teenage years when hormones will kick in and life will continue to change. We will keep moving forward and take it one day at a time.  

May your holidays be bright and the meltdowns small. Good luck from one parent to another.