A friend asked me, tongue in cheek, if I would write a 600 part series with advice about parenting her SPD/ASD daughter. I gulped and laughed. I wish I had that series myself. I am NOT an Autistic Parenting Expert by any stretch of the imagination. I am new to this journey and am figuring it out as I go along.
However, I want to help and encourage others in their parenting journeys so I told my friend that I had three ideas for posts about techniques that work for us…sometimes.
Have you seen those shows about people who prep for DoomsDay/Zombie Apocalypse? They self-identify as “Preppers.” These people stockpile underground bunkers with food, ammo, and daily necessities to help them survive, what they believe to be, impending Doom. I watch these preppers in fascination…as I roll my eyes..
However, as much as my eyes are permanently stuck in the back of my head at the idea of being a “prepper,” I’ve realized that preparing for worst case scenarios is something that I do on a daily basis as I raise my 8 year old Autistic son. I come to realize that prepping is essential for my son’s daily well-being (and our family’s well-being too!).
Because many ASD people build their reality around personal experiences, encountering new experiences can very scary, can cause anxiety and panic, ultimately leading to a meltdown.
Sensory overload to daily events (crowded playgrounds, mom using the vacuum or hand mixer, new clothes, etc) can also cause meltdowns.
Feeling secure and safe is important to all people, but because the world is a scary and unpredictable place to many autistic people, preparing your child for daily encounters (even if you do the same routine every day) is important for emotional and physical security.
The techniques listed below are things that we have learned from our therapist, as well as practices that I have learned and applied through trial and error. We have had more success than failure with these techniques but they don’t work (ie. prevent a meltdown) all the time.
6 ways to become a Meltdown Prepper
1. Prepare for every situation
With our son, we have learned that if we talk through scenarios that seem threatening to him (like a doctor’s check up) or situations that may trigger a meltdown (like a play date) before they happen, it helps him “experience” the situation, therefore making it less scary.
Church has been a huge struggle for us and I was especially dreading the Easter Service because there is lots of music (sensory trigger for my son) and it is a family service (no Sunday School). I wanted to avoid a meltdown so here are some ways we prepped for this stressful situation:
-We talked about the Easter service a few weeks to prepare him for the new format
-We spent an entire counseling session with his therapist talking about ways to cope
-On the advice of his counselor, we role-played potential tricky situations and how Benji could respond if he felt overwhelmed or anxious (Me: What do you think you could do if you feel anxious or upset during the service? Benji: I can ask you to roll my back with the yellow train.)
To me, the prep for Easter felt excessive (and Benji even started saying, “Mooom! I know!“) but it paid off.
We had a very smooth and happy Easter Sunday. Benji asked for what he needed; we were able to comfort and help him; and, best of all, no meltdowns! To quote Benji, “This was the best day EVER!”
2. Anticipate Triggers
For us, a key to avoiding meltdowns is to to anticipate the changes that could cause anxiety in our son. Obviously, preparing for every worse case scenario is impossible (plus, who knows why kids throw fits sometimes!) but if you see a pattern in your child’s life, try to pinpoint the trigger; then address the trigger before it happens so you can prevent the meltdown.
For example, my son is very sensitive to hunger. He gets a fruit or veggie mid-afternoon snack at school but sometimes he comes home, starts homework, and dissolves into a “mood.”
While several factors may be in play, the first question I ask is, “did you eat your snack at school today?” If not, I feed that boy ASAP!
Taking care of his physical needs is essential to helping him regulate his emotions.
3. Practice “Calm Down” techniques when your child is calm
Have you ever tried to tell your child to “Calm down! take a deep breath!” when he is in the middle of a full-fledged fit? How did that work for you?
Yeah, me too. It doesn’t.
When kids are out of control, they lose the ability to cognitively calm themselves if the “Calm Down” habits are not established.
Our therapist encouraged us to practice “Calm Down” techniques when Benji is calm and happy. That way the technique is associated with the calm mood, not the meltdown. Also, practicing creates a habit-path so that the child can more easily reach the calm place during a stressful situation.
Some calm down techniques we’ve used include:
-Deep breaths (5 at most) (“Blow away your angry feelings!” or “Blow out the birthday candles!”)
-Squeezing a stress ball 5 times
-Placing your hands on your thighs and squeezing for 5 seconds, then relaxing for 5 seconds.
-Guided sensory imagery to a ‘Happy Place’ (close your eyes: what do you see/hear/smell/feel?). This exercise “resets” the emotional state.
We have had varying degrees of success with practicing “Calm Down” techniques. The habit seemed to work for little upsets but not for huge meltdowns. However, I think if I was more consistent in making my son practice, we would probably have better results.
4. Give transition warnings
Transitions are a huge meltdown trigger for my son, especially when he was preschool age. I had to start giving transition warnings for every activity:
“In 5 minutes we are going to stop watching TV and eat breakfast”
“In 15 minutes (then 10, then 5, then 1) we are going to leave the park”
“Right after this show is over, it’s time to go potty and take a nap. Do you understand?”
As he has gotten older, he hasn’t needed the transition warnings as much. However, when I forget to give a verbal transition warning, especially if he is doing something he enjoys, like playing the ipad or watching a movie, he gets very upset and it’s hard to “reset” him without great effort on my part.
Picture schedules have worked really well for us in the past too–that way your child can look at the schedule to see what is coming up next, therefore feeling more autonomous (and so you don’t feel like you are losing your mind by giving the constant transition warnings).
5. Remove sensory triggers (or remove yourself/your child)
Sensory triggers can be baffling to someone who doesn’t have SPD. I finally realized that I can’t “logic” my child out of his sensory issues (::facepalm::); I just have to accept them, anticipate them, prepare for them, or remove them.
Benji’s pants have to have elastic in the waist. For a while, I tried to buy “slim” pants that still had the tight feel he craved.
It didn’t work. Thinking about the “pants meltdowns” we’ve had still makes my heart pound.
It isn’t worth the battle. He needs elastic pants? He gets elastic pants!
Same for food: If I’m serving applesauce to the rest of my kids, I just cut up an apple for Benji (or give him another type of fruit or veggie). Applesauce type foods are a no-go. (Thankfully, he does eat a wide variety of foods. Many ASD children do not).
There are some sensory issues you can control as a parent; there are others you cannot. If your child cannot cope with sensory input and he or she is starting to meltdown, the best thing to do is to remove your child from the situation, even if that means going to sit in the car with her while she holds a favorite toy or blanket until she calms down.
You can’t “tough” your way out of sensory issues, though you can prepare for challenges if avoidance is impossible (see 1 and 2 again).
6. Remember that a bad moment doesn’t mean you have a bad life.
Sometimes the prepping pays off and sometimes it doesn’t. You can prep, and anticipate, and prepare for weeks, days, hours, and minute by minute but you can’t prep the Autism out of your child.
Meldowns happen (or insert your word of choice here).
Sometimes you just have to ride it out, talk it out when it is over, hug your baby, and start over again when the storm subsides.
If you have a prepper mindset, it’s easy to see “DoomsDay” around every corner. It’s the same for meltdowns. I have experienced seasons in my life where my own anxiety of “when is my son going to meltdown next” was almost debilitating.
I had to change.
For one, I started being more consistent in helping to avoid meltdowns.
Secondly, I had to start thinking long term. Prepping myself and my child is more than just preparing for the next meltdown. It’s really is about preparing my child to successfully navigate life in a healthy way.
Eventually, I want him to be able to anticipate life changes, transitions, sensory triggers, and autonomously utilize ways to calm down.
Until then though, I have to help him because he can’t help himself. He needs me to come along side him when his body, emotions, and world feel scary and out of control. I need to be his rock, his safe, secure place.
I’m his bunker.
Yep, I’ve become a Prepper.
Are you an ASD “Prepper”?
What helps you and your child navigate through challenging situations?
Share your story below!
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