It's been five months since Sweet M had a meltdown—a full-blown, no-holds-barred, flip-out sort of meltdown—the sort of episode that the family featured on Dr. Phil was dealing with on a regular basis.
Our lives had become so mellow that we'd actually stopped expecting the phone to ring with calls from her school asking one of us to come and get her. We'd even gotten to the point where we'd occasionally go out without our cell phones turned on.
So I guess you could say that she was overdue.
Her teacher called on Thursday afternoon around noon. M had lost it on the playground, during the lunchtime recess. M's father took the call, and as often happens in these games of telephone, there was, at first, some confusion about what had happened. At first we understood—mistakenly—that M had hit another child.
After M and her father were in-route, on the way home, M's teacher Helen called back to tell me what had happened . . .
M was on one of those playground jungle gyms that has a chain bridge that wiggles when you walk across it. She was on the bridge with some other girls, and she said she wanted to be on it by herself. But they wanted to be on it, too.
I'm not certain, but I think the wobbliness of these chain bridges is very relaxing for her . . . these chain bridges have been the site of other episodes, to be discussed in some future post, but in any case . . .
Alan, M's teacher from last year, who was operating under the assumption that M should get her way (so as to avoid meltdown episodes), told the other girls to let M have the swinging bridge to herself.
But then Helen, M's teacher from this year, operating under the principles they've been using this year—namely that M can't act like she's the only kid on the playground—told M that she needed to share.
Meltdown. In M's world, when two contradictory rules collide and she doesn't get her way, there is some sort of internal chain reaction. Or perhaps it's like in the fictional construct on the old episodes of Star Trek—when matter and anti-matter meet, the universe explodes from the force of the contradiction.
This contradiction of the rules was a particularly troubling case for M because it was not her less-favorite teacher from last year who had issued the "you must share" edict, but her beloved teacher Helen—the teacher who is, in M's mind, the source of all that is good, and beautiful, and just. That sort of splitting (good mommy-bad mommy, madonna-whore, and so on) that young minds of all ages engage in—of dividing the world into good and bad—had just been challenged. Beloved became despised and M was doing what the psychologists would call decompensating and what the nuclear physicist might call fission chain reaction.
And so Sweet M became less sweet and much much much more sour, complete with the screaming and histrionics that we prefer to avoid. She began crying and screaming at Helen—"It's all your fault, it's all your fault." And, in a way, she was right. Because when splitting happens, the bad other is the source of all trouble.
According to what we were told by Helen, M kept pulling herself back together and then losing it, then pulling herself back together, then losing it again. This is a great development, because it suggests that this is not a completely unmitigated, uncontrollable meltdown. The molten nuclear core of the reactor keeps bumping up against enough in her life that is calming and cooling that she can momentarily regain her equilibrium, until it melts through again.
When they got back to school she flung her locker door open, accidentally hitting another child with the locker door, and pitched her stuff into the locker in a fit of rage and indignation. So she had not, fortunately, hit another child with ill will. But still . . . even accidentally hitting another child bodes ill.
She calmed herself again, but she had to come home because we have a rule this year that if she screams at school that her father has to come and get her. Once home, she was fine . . . did her homework . . . played on the computer . . . watched a little TV, ate supper, and went to bed.
In other posts I've taken issue with the metaphors that medical, media, and educational professionals use when describing our kids. I've railed against language like "splinter skills," and criticized Dr. Phil and his producers for casting an Aspie teenager as "a ticking time bomb." Yet here I am, speaking of M's behavior as a "meltdown." Hmmmmh.
This would be the time that a former colleague would quip: "Pot, meet Kettle: Kettle, meet Pot."
But seriously, what is going on here? Why would I, and so many other autism parents, describe their children's episodes of dysregulation with a metaphor that summons the image of widespread catastrophe, of the need for containment, and the danger of fallout?
M's father doesn't use this language of meltdown. He calls her episodes her "crises." I guess that's because this is close to the French crises des nerfs—the crisis of nerves. But I've been using the language of nuclear catastrophe for quite some time. I don't even remember when I first starting using the talk of the meltdown. My best guess is that I was probably talking with a doctor or another parent and trying to distinguish M's episodes from a garden-variety tantrum.
I was probably trying to explain that these episodes differ from a tantrum in their intensity, duration, and level of destructiveness. Once started, they are often difficult to interrupt. Hence they're not simply explosive, they're a chain reaction—a meltdown. Also, unlike a tantrum, these episodes, are initially, for the new autism parent, difficult to predict. After enough of them, you have finely tuned antenna and can sense the impending meltdown almost by smell. But at first they seem to come out of the blue. In fact I have found myself describing them like thunderstorms blowing through, and have read other autism parents who used the language of the storm to describe autistic dysregulation.
But the metaphor of the explosive temper runs deep through our language. He's a pressure cooker, we might say. She's a hot-head. Or he's letting off steam. Or he exploded. Or she blew up at me.
Or, alternately, he's cool, she keeps her cool, she's got a cool head.
Anger is associated heat—often the actual physical heat—complete with red faces and elevated body temperature. And cool is associated with reason.
Even when we speak of losing our tempers, we are still invoking a metaphor of heat. Tempering a metal involves heating it to a very high point, then plunging it into cool water. The result—for example, tempered steel—is less brittle, both stronger and more pliable, more resilient.
In the Western world, at least since the Enlightment, we have privileged reason—cool heads—and well-tempered selves. Our complicated social hierarchies leave little room for "losing it" or "blowing up." Whereas scuffles and drunken brawling were not uncommon among the Irish working class stock from which I hail, in the middle class, homogenized world in which we are now expected to circulate, where we are expected to pass as "white" (as in Anglo-Saxon, rather than Celt)—losing it, losing your cool, blowing up—these "ugly feelings" and outbursts—are not acceptable.
One of the books I found most helpful in shaping my understand of M has been Ross Greene's The Explosive Child. Greene describes kids like M who have a difficult time transitioning, and who lose it (temper, equilibrium) when they're asked to go from one activity to the next. He describes this is a lack of "executive function" in the brain. This metaphor is fairly telling in that it suggests a kind of internal class-structure for the brain itself . . . that the reasonable executive will manage the hot-headed working class. But be that as it may, Greene's book is helpful in that he describes this lack of "self-control" as a feature of brain maturation, or the lack of it.
He suggests that our kids simply can't hold two different ideas in their heads at the same time. So let's say that M is watching TV. And I say, "Time to take your bath." For M, TV is being annihilated. Gone forever. Gone for good. Basta. Finished.
Or let's say that one teacher says you can have the bridge to yourself, and the other teacher, the goddess of all that is good, says you can't. Urnt urnt urnt. You can almost hear the sirens in her head: does not compute, does not compute, system overload, all systems overload.
But if I can find a way to help her know that she's not losing the possibility of that pleasure forever, then the transition can be easier.
Tricks include consistency—though not necessarily rigidity—but also early warnings, and reminders that TV (or the bridge all to yourself) will be possible again, TV later, TV tomorrow.
Aggressive language, a combative attitude, and demands for obedience—"TV off now, take YOUR bath now!" would be completely counterproductive, because then her fear of losing the TV or the wobbly bridge for all time and eternity, would escalate. Parental, and pedagogical, cool heads matter so much.
What is hopeful in Greene's work is that he argues that for our "explosive" kids that this sort of self-reflexive maturation may eventually happen, but in very late adolescence and early adulthood. In other words, they'll probably grow out of it, as is said of the tantrums of the terrible-twos. It's just that they'll be 23, instead of 3, when this happens.
In the meantime, we hope we can find ways to help M be more well-tempered . . . more harmonious and in tune, as was J.S. Bach's clavier.
Image: detail from Jan Steen's The Harpsichord Lesson, mid-1600s, Wallace Collection.
Keywords: autism • Asperger's Syndrome • parenting • anger management • Greene, Ross