Things had been pretty mellow with Henry overall this week. I’ve written about a few of his challenges and the things we are working on, but one area I haven’t really addressed are his meltdowns. I’ll get into more detail on those and our work on that front in a future post, but suffice to say, they can get pretty intense sometimes.

Some of it comes from the fact that he is four. Parents out there certainly know that most kids get spun up and throw a tantrum now and then. As mellow as Amelia is overall, she had some pretty epic meltdowns when she was younger. One time when she was really little and we were trying to get her to sleep in room, we tried a gate on the door and she got so angry she threw everything in her room into the hall. Every toy, every book…everything.

We’ve all got it in us. Kids and grown ups alike. Anyone who has had the misfortune of being around me when I’m overly hungry can testify that I can tantrum with the best of them.

With Henry, though, we are trying to deal with the outbursts and learn which parts are the four year old, and which part are the ASD. Lots of times we’ll see something start as a defiant four-year-old and develop into something bigger. We saw one of those on Wednesday.

It was cleaning day, and we were all pitching in. In fact, at one point in the afternoon I told the kids to clean up their playroom, which was quite a mess, and I was surprised at the lack of pushback I got. They actually did it! No complaints from them. I’ll mark that one down in my ledger.

By mid afternoon, it became clear that Henry was tired. He and his sister had been downstairs watching TV for a while, and we asked them both to put a few of their toys away. Henry grouchily ran one toy to his room, and then loudly refused to put away the other two he needed to. That’s where the standoff began.

After refusal after refusal, we told him he’d have to lose his TV priveleges for the day, which really got him escalated. We could see him start to lose control, and offered up some of his sensory toys (squeeze ball, glitter bottle, and massager) to help him level out, but he just kept shouting, “No!”

We talked to him about earning his TV privileges back if he would just put away these two toys. He was still really upset, but seemed to be moving toward compliance. One of the toys was a matchbox car that he literally just had to pick up off the floor, walk 10 feet and put into a bin.

He picked up the car. I took his hand and walked him over to the bin, and I could see him get angrier and angrier, crying and yelling. Standing right at the bin, I told him that all he needed to do was to throw that car into the bin. He stood there, holding the car, and just couldn’t do it.

We’ve talked a great deal about this kind of thing with Henry’s therapists, and have come to understand that there are meltdowns that are behavioral, and ones that are sensory. The best way to describe the difference is to ask if the episode would end if the child got what they want?

Let’s say, for example, Henry gets upset and starts having a meltdown because the TV is taken away. If it’s behavioral, letting him watch TV would be the end of it. He would calm down because he got what he wanted. However, if it’s sensory, even giving him what he wants wouldn’t stop the escalation. By this point, he is overstimulated and he is struggling to control his emotions and reactions. 

This meltdown felt behavioral at first, when he was fighting us on the toys, and then got upset about the TV. When I watched him with the car, I knew it had moved to sensory. Once at this point, the best we can do is try to help coach him back down to a calmer state. It’s hard, because we don’t always see these coming and by the time it’s there, it’s often too late.

This is an area we are focused on and really working on, trying to understand and find ways help support him in those moments and to give him the tools to modulate before he gets to that level. I can tell you that watching him when he reaches the point of eruption, it’s clear that he doesn’t like these meltdowns any more than we do. It’s difficult and exhausting for him, too.

After it was over, he napped for a solid two hours, and woke up in a much different mood. He put his toys away with no fuss, and we had a really good talk with him about listening, and about how we are here to help him through moments like this.

He was upset that he lost his TV priveleges for a while, but he did not get angry. He was frustrated by it, yes, but he truly seemed to understand, and did really well for the rest of the evening. So as tough going as things were in the afternoon, I think we did get through to him and made a little progress. Every step forward is a step forward, and we take them where we can get them.

All of this can be a tricky balancing act for us, because we do need to set normal expectations for him, just like for anyone. He does need to do his chores and listen to directions like anyone does. But we also want to help him succeed and cope with those times that he gets overwhelmed.

We continue to work on ways to build those expectations while navigating those tricky waters. He is an incredibly sweet and smart little guy, and I know we’ll ge there. It was a pretty calm and relaxing evening, and tomorrow is a fresh start. Onward.