I purchased this book because its author, Dr. Jed Baker, was recommended by the speaker at a meeting about autism at our local library. After looking through the books he has written, I ended up choosing one that is not specific to the needs of children with autism, though. One of his other books, on social skills, may be helpful as Al moves into middle school. But for now, dealing with his frequent meltdowns is a higher priority.
His teachers have taught him some coping skills, so they don’t occur as frequently as they used to. But situations that exceed his coping skills happen on a regular basis, and I hoped to learn some strategies to help me as a parent as well as to teach him.
Parents and teachers generally know that it is important to set rules, then use consistent rewards and punishments to enforce the rules. The problem is when a child continues to have meltdowns in spite of appropriate disciplinary measures. Dr. Baker points out that too often, parents and teachers think the only options are to hold to the rules and perhaps make the punishments more severe, or else give in – which of course they know is not a solution.
Dr. Baker offers a third approach – to work at understanding what is triggering the meltdowns, then to reduce the triggers and/or teach the child better ways to respond. To some extent, I think that we do this already without thinking about it as a specific strategy. We know that small children get cranky when they are tired, so we make sure they get their naps rather than have to deal with the consequences of their being over-tired. We know they need to eat more often than we do, and I quickly learned to have a snack available for my son when we got home at dinnertime, rather than expecting him to wait patiently for me to finish fixing dinner.
We know that some kids have trouble losing a game without getting upset, so we recommend they play non-competitive games. We know that it’s hard to deal with being teased, so we teach all the kids the importance of being nice to each other, and tell them what to do if they are teased. And parenting magazines are full of advice on how to get bedtime to go more smoothly.
But there are other situations that are harder to recognize as problems, particularly when most children have learned certain coping skills by a certain age and ours haven’t. It’s easy to think that it’s a discipline issue, when often it is a learning issue. Some kids simply need more help in learning certain kinds of skills, and some are more prone to experience stress in situations that other children handle with ease.
Solving problems requires abstract thinking (how can this be done differently?). Interacting well with people requires being able to think how things look from the other person’s perspective. Most children learn these things naturally in the course of growing up, but they come with more difficulty to others – especially those with autism. Some children – especially those with autism, as well as other neurological disorders – also are either over-stimulated or under-stimulated by the sensory stimuli around them (things to see, hear, smell, etc.), and either withdraw or become overactive trying to find a comfortable level.
Dr. Baker gives some advice for de-escalating a meltdown that has already occurred, but most of the book is about understanding what triggers the meltdowns, and skills the child can learn for dealing with those kinds of situations. He groups the triggers broadly into four groups: demands (requiring the child to do something), waiting, wanting attention, and threats to self-image. For each, he gives a few examples, using actual children he has worked with. He tells what worked for those children, and outlines steps to follow to work with a child in a similar situation.
I’m not sure quite how to categorize Al’s triggers. The fact that most of his meltdowns occur at school is part of this, as I only hear about the situations and don’t see them first-hand. (I’m sure I would be allowed to visit his classroom, but I am also sure that my mere presence would change the dynamics of the situation – though I don’t know if I’d make things better or worse.) I do know that most of the meltdowns I observe personally start with a distraught “I’m confused!”
Sometimes there is a “demand” – something Al needs to do (or thinks he needs to do) but isn’t sure how to do. Often it’s homework, usually the extra-challenging homework from an extra class he attends because he is so bright. (It’s supposed to be challenging, and normally he can do it, but occasionally it requires more outside-the-box thinking than he can manage.) I refuse to just give him the answer, so I try to guide him into understanding it himself, but that process can be very stressful for both of us.
Sometimes it’s because he already made a mistake, or was told by someone that he was wrong about something. Dr. Baker gives an example of this under “threats to self-image,” and the suggestions related to academic work might help (though I think we already do them for the most part). But what do you do when a child wants to play a challenging video game, then gets upset when it’s so hard? I tell him it’s his choice whether to play or not, but he isn’t happy about having to either give up playing or accept that he is going to lose sometimes.
Often it’s a combination. There is something new, whether it’s a new place we go to or a new skill to learn (a “demand”). When it’s not easy or he’s not sure what to do, he tries to get an adult’s attention. When he doesn’t get the help he wants right away, he’s not willing to wait. And if he’s making a mistake – or is afraid he is, I guess that’s a threat to his self-image.
In all cases, Dr. Baker advises that we start by changing the triggers. Can we reduce the amount of sensory stimulation? I don’t know how much he is affected by noise, but I know I find it very upsetting to have noise around me when I am trying to do something particularly challenging. Can we change the timing so that he is less likely to be hungry or tired? Can we make the task less difficult by breaking it down into smaller parts, or telling him ahead of time what he will need to do, or giving him longer to accomplish something – not require him to spend as much time on it?
There are also specific skills to learn to help with certain situations. I already tell Al that it’s OK to make mistakes, but I’m not sure the message gets through. Considering that his parents and his older brother tend to be perfectionists, it’s hardly surprising that he would be also. The section on sharing parents’ attention with a sibling may have some application – it’s not usually much of a problem, but sharing a teacher’s attention with other students or a den leader’s attention with other Cub Scouts often is.
The books certainly doesn’t offer a “silver bullet” to make meltdowns go away. And there are no examples in the book that make me think, “That’s just what my son is like.” But there is a wealth of good information on children in general, and specific areas to work on for each kind of meltdown.