A Neurotypical Meltdown


One of the constant points made by many parents, professionals, and other people regarding autistic children is that their behaviors are “autistic” behaviors. They use this to show a contrast between “autistic” behaviors versus “normal” behaviors.


One of the cornerstone events that many autistic people have, in some cases, daily, is the meltdown. Because it happens so often with autistic people, neurotypical people often believe that this is an autistic trait. But as I am going to show you in this essay, that is a misconception. Equally false is the notion that only children have meltdowns. Adults, in certain situations, will melt down as well. For example, TV reporters often showed adults who were melting down as they tried to survive Hurricane Katrina during the aftermath of the storm.


Why does a meltdown occur? There is a simple reason—a person is put in a situation they cannot deal with mentally, and they cannot escape that situation, so they fall apart. Their mind is telling them they need out, but the person in power says no—they must stay. Then the mind falls apart, and the child starts going crazy.


Meltdowns are deliberately irrational. If you have to get out, you have to GET OUT, and it’s not a matter of negotiation with other people. You don’t negotiate with a meltdown—because the reason why the child is melting down is because he can’t compromise. He tried to say out nicely, and is hoping this will get him out.


Indeed, one of the biggest reasons why school is so horrible for an autistic person is that there are so many restrictions on when he can get out if he wants to or has to.


This applies to everyone—whether or not they are a child or an adult, neurotypical or autistic. Temper tantrums and meltdowns, in fact, are quite frequent in babies and two-year-olds, even if they are neurotypical.


I have melted down before. All of my meltdowns had this in common. I can remember days I was about to be forced to do something terribly stressful. I knew that I had to leave, but I could not leave—so I just started crying and announcing my fear in the desperate hope I would be listened to.


Since January of 2005 I have been volunteering at a local daycare center. At this daycare, I witness children who don’t want to see their parents leave, and sometime burst into tears. At the same time, children who have had a good time at the daycare also are sad when their parents come to get them, and they sometimes burst into tears.


But a few months ago, I witnessed a meltdown that was very significant not just because the child melted down, but because of how the parent responded to it. I saw a neurotypical girl, who was six years old, revert to behaviors associated with autism. And the causes were obvious to me.


So when I’m at the daycare, playing with one child, in walks three children—two girls and a baby boy. They’ve come before.


I see in the back of my eye that the six-year-old, the oldest child in the family, sits down in a rocking chair. I look a few minutes later and she appears to be on the verge of tears. Suddenly I hear her crying, asking the staff for her mother. Then I hear this loud screaming. I look back, and It’s her.


She starts screaming, “I want my mommy! I want my mommy!” One of the staff members says she will get her mommy. “I want her now!” she cries.


I know pretty well that the staff is just lying to her to make her feel better, because that parent is not going to come back. No parent ever has before. I return back to the game I’m in with the other child, still hearing her scream in the background. Then the screaming stops and then I just see her move down to another chair, sit down, her face in tears, frozen and silent after having a meltdown that failed.


Let me remind you that this girl has no diagnosis of autism or anything else.


Now, the game I’m in ends, and that child goes back home to his mother. With the girl calmed, I approach her. We start playing. And she has a good time. She lightened up. And then, the mother walks in. I tell the girl her mother’s here. She runs to her mother.


Her mother says to her, “You misbehaved. You did a bad thing and you need to apologize. Say you’re sorry.”


The girl looks at her mom and says, “No.”


“Say you’re sorry.”




“Say you’re sorry.”




Suddenly the girl tries to get away from her mother, but her mother grabs her hand to stop her from escaping.


“We’re not leaving here until you say you’re sorry.”




“Say you’re sorry.”




“We’ll stay here until it closes if you don’t say you’re sorry.”




“You know, everyone is hungry for lunch. Your sister wants to go home. So just say you’re sorry.”




I sit down in a comfortable chair and witness this, eyeing the clock. This goes on for another ten minutes. I am silent. Obviously I didn’t go off and lecture this parent, nor did I tell her I was going to make her name mud in my next presentation…


 “Say you’re sorry.”


“I’m sorry,” she says very softly.


“No, you have to say it nicely. Say it.”


During this her younger sister, a four-year-old, says to her mother, “I’m sorry, Mom. I’m sorry” constantly.


“No, you didn’t misbehave. Your sister did. She has to say she’s sorry.”


Then the mom says to her younger daughter, “Now, do you want to go home?”


“Yes,” the younger sister said.


“Then tell your sister that. Tell her to say she’s sorry so we can go home.”


“I want to go home,” the younger sister said.


“You see? You’re hurting your younger sister. Now say you’re sorry.”




“I can’t take this anymore. Say you’re sorry.”




“All right. We’re staying here until you say sorry. We won’t even go on the trip we’re taking this week. Say you’re sorry.”




So another ten minutes passes with the girl refusing to say sorry. By now she’s trying to get away from her mother and resorting to scratching her mother’s arm to get away.


“Say you’re sorry.”




“Say you’re sorry.”




Eventually the girl, totally defeated, after having fought her mother for a record time of over twenty minutes, goes up to the staff member and says, “I’m sorry.”


Then they leave. On the way out, her mother looks at me and says, “Thank you for being with her.”


I do not think of myself as a miracle worker, or a savior. However, when she returned a week later, I spent most of my time with her. We had a great time playing together. Eventually she was able to make herself at home at the daycare, playing with the other kids, after she enjoyed being with someone who never had an obligation to be with her in the first place. She has never melted down since. And her mother was nothing but polite and thankful to me every time she picked up her kid.


Most of us who have read this essay pretty much see how the mother was overreacting.  Yet, of course, she got away with it because she was the “one in charge” and could hide behind the fact that she was the “adult.”


Everyone blamed it all on that six-year-old—when in fact the mother was just as much at fault as her daughter. Her daughter was wrong to talk back to her mother. Her daughter was wrong to scratch her mother. But her mother was wrong to escalate the situation. She was also wrong for blaming her daughter for the misery of her daughter’s younger sister. In fact, you could say that the mother did it to herself. She didn’t come for her daughter, and when her daughter melted down, she had to nerve to ask for an apology and to call it misbehaving.


But all her daughter was doing was showing some emotion towards her mother, and she got punished. What is this mother teaching her child? Not only do her feelings not matter, but that showing love toward your own parent is misbehaving. And that will only hurt the mother in the long run.


I’m not faulting the mother for not coming back to her daughter when her daughter had a meltdown. I am faulting the mother for making a big deal out of that meltdown instead of comforting her daughter and reassuring her that it was okay. That was ridiculous! And then escalating it for twenty minutes.


Then another technique was used which has been used many times by people who have the authority—blame it on someone else. Or, blame the victim. When the girl’s mother blamed her daughter on keeping her younger sister from leaving, I thought to myself, Your daughter is not keeping her sister from leaving. You are.


Obviously, you cannot back down if you’re the mother after twenty minutes. Neither can you let the child get away with scratching her mother’s arm. Nor can you let the child win after twenty minutes.


But who started it? Who provoked the child that compelled her to scratch the arm? The mother. The child cannot win, but the mother should not have made “winning” an issue in the first place.


Is it any wonder why autistic people become emotionally distant? They go through dozens of these, and this happens to them each time. Can’t you understand why they don’t want to be with people?


You are going to have to listen to an autistic child if you want to prevent a meltdown. This might seem unthinkable, but is it really? Is it really worth fighting a child who is suffering if you could just compromise and accommodate the child? Was it really worth it to make such a big deal over a few emotions of love toward the mother?


Another lesson here that should be mentioned is that attempts to take the “easy” road out work both ways. However, often times, one person is unable to understand that. There’s no denying that it is much harder for the mother to listen to her child than to just discipline her. She’s trying to take the “easy” way out—blame it on the kid, so she doesn’t have to blame herself. What she doesn’t realize is that her child is trying to do the same thing. Since it is more difficult for her to say she’s sorry, she is trying to not give in to her mother, whom she feels is unjustified.


Most fights after all, occur under that principle—two parties find themselves justified but feel the other party is unjustified, and so are willing to fight. 


There’s no doubt about it—understanding a child with autism, or sometimes, is tough. Sometimes you may understand the child, but just don’t care. At home, I have a sister who’s three, and even though she’s not autistic, her behavior is similar to that of an autistic person. And I’ve felt similar anger that my mother felt toward me when she becomes quite rigid about certain issues, such as having to have a specific toy with her in the car. It’s helped me develop a theory of mind toward a parent of an autistic child—to understand it from their point of view as well as mine. Since you wouldn’t find anything wrong with saying you’re sorry, how come this child is not doing that?


But it is still worth it—if you can listen.


However, the most important lesson here is that autistic children are not the polar opposites of other children—they are still children, and the same mechanisms that cause autistic people to fall apart appear in normal people. And parents of those children will act the same way as they would with an autistic child.


It’s not that autistic people fall apart and normal people don’t, it’s just that autistic people are put in more situations that force them to fall apart because of their autism. But neurotypical people would not be any different.


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