As a pediatric physical therapist, I spent many years working with children with autism. These children each possess their own personalities, I cannot make generalizations about them. One thing I noticed without almost all my patients with autism, though, was what they taught me.
When I first started working with kids, I remember seeing some of the moms with autistic children. I remember feeling awe over how calm some of them seemed while their children had meltdowns. Slowly, though I started to understand why and how they could do this.
Let me tell you about a child with autism; I will name him George. For the first year of working with George, meltdowns occurred frequently. I implemented many of the techniques recommended for children with autism: they never seemed to work. We did sensory integration, vision boards, rewards: everything I could think of doing. However, George really wanted to do fewer reps of the activity then I asked him to do. As much as I compromised with George, I did not want to reduce a number of reps after I had requested it. I worried he would keep having meltdowns until we got to zero or one.
Then, one day, George had a meltdown . . . for forty minutes. This including screaming, crying, thumb sucking, hiding in the corner. I was particularly tired this day. I had spent a year consistently following structure. I didn’t give in to his meltdowns. I hadn’t let him change the number of reps. Today, though, I gave in. I let him do nine repetitions of the activity instead of ten. He immediately got up and did all nine of them.
I was completely baffled. All of that screaming and crying over one downward facing dog? I could not believe it. Why did that one repetition mean so much to him? Then, I paused, and I asked myself, “hold on, why does that one repetition mean so much to me?” After that, I had a plan. I would let George request one less repetition of every activity we did (no more than that).
Things changed rapidly, he quickly and consistently agreed to do every activity once he was allowed to participate in the decision of how many repetitions we did. He really only wanted to bring it down by one. Over time, he learned to trust me and started following my requests more consistently. He stopped having meltdowns. I had been avoiding letting him change the repetitions because I thought if I did, he would not listen to me. The opposite was true. Turns out George was an amazing, bright, creative kid. He always had a creative solution to different problems we would encounter. Eventually, he didn’t need to change the repetitions. It was enough to know he could.
So what did I learn from George? I learned to turn inwards when I was having a problem with him. Here is what I notice. Autistic children often exaggerate whatever issues are going on with me. Whenever any child, but especially those with autism, started to have a meltdown, I would tune into myself. I would notice any anxiety, stress, or tension I felt, and soften into it. Nine times out of ten, they would soon calm down too. I view children, especially those with autism, as little mirrors for myself. I find that usually, whatever behavior they display is an exaggerated version of some behavior I demonstrate.
This isn’t universally true: sometimes, they just have meltdowns. Even if it isn’t true, developing the practice of tuning into yourself and calming yourself during these meltdowns still has value. Each child with autism will have different responses to over stimulation. Each will have their own unique set of triggers and calming stimuli. (No other child responded to repetition number like George did). They also can help you learn about yourself.