Published on February 10th, 2017 | by Three Tiny Stones0
Warning: Autism Meltdown in Progress
My 5-year old son, Mac, looks like a typically developed kid: friendly, funny, smart, polite. But he has what most people would call “high functioning autism.” He’s usually louder than he means to be, doesn’t have the vocabulary of other kids his age, and has trouble regulating his emotions. Outings with him are unpredictable — I never know exactly what will trigger a meltdown or how he’ll react to things. We do a lot of practicing — practice making conversations, eating in restaurants, going shopping, handling negative emotion, following rules. Practice means the risk of failure. Sometimes, they’re epic, fireballs in the sky, earth shaking, devastating failures. This is a side of autism rarely talked about it, but for most autism families it’s the most painful side — the public failures.
With Mac, outings are hit-or-miss. He can be the sweetest, most agreeable kid, or he can be a complete disaster. On this particular day last weekend, he was in a great mood. He’d been asking to eat at Panera for weeks, and I’d finally agreed. My other two kids were being super helpful. My oldest daughter found us a table and sat down with my boys. She was playing with them, being a good big sister and trying to distract them while I made our order. I looked over at them often, smiled at their funny faces, gave a stern “mom” look when the boys stood on their chairs, happy things so far were going well. Then, the cashier got our order wrong. I could feel my anxiety creeping up, knowing every extra minute away from the table was borrowed time. I could tell they were getting restless, and knew they were already hungry — both signs of danger ahead.
Mac and his brother started kicking each other under the table. They were having fun and laughing, but I could see things getting out of hand quickly. My daughter tried to get them to stop, but they continued kicking and laughing, pushing and laughing — until Mac had had enough and very loudly told his brother to STOP. In Mac’s world, there’s no room for leeway. Stop means full stop. Now. Immediately. His brother, though, like a freight train that suddenly puts on the breaks, didn’t stop fast enough. I knew what would come next. I’ve seen it before, mostly at home, but occasionally in public. I gave up trying to fix our order, and made my way quickly to the table to try some damage control. Mac was very loudly telling his brother to stop and get off of him. I tried to sit and talk quietly to him, but that seemed to agitate him even more. Mac began kicking and hitting his brother in earnest, and I decided this trip was going downhill fast. I asked my daughter to grab our coats and start making her way to the car with my other son, while I attempted to calm Mac.
Mac was inconsolable, though. There was no talking to him — he was yelling too loud to hear me. When I tried to pick him up, he kicked and slapped me, knocking my glasses off my face. He spit at me, yelled at me to stop hurting him and to stop being mean. He refused to leave. I dragged him from the table and carried him kicking and screaming outside.
I was embarrassed and angry. I have no idea how the people around us in the restaurant reacted because I couldn’t look at them. I carried Mac to the car, strapped him into the car seat, and shut the door on his continued yelling and flailing. I took a deep breath. The worst was over. Mac was calming down, and those five minutes of chaos were in the past. We could wait a day or two, go back inside the restaurant and try again — no one would remember us. And maybe next time, Mac could calmly tell his brother to stop kicking him and move to another seat. But for this day, I was exhausted, embarrassed, and done.
On the way home, Mac called me his “sweet beautiful mama” and said he loved me. He wasn’t upset about going home to eat, and while the rest of us were still shell-shocked, he was calm and pleasant. Was the trip a failure? Yes, and no. Yes, Mac had the monster of all meltdowns, but we had practice eating out as a family. For a few minutes anyway, he followed the rules of eating in a restaurant: wait for your food, sit at your table, talk quietly. Next weekend, we’ll probably try again; if we don’t expose him to the possibility of failure, he’ll never get the hang of eating out.
At first glance, Mac doesn’t appear to have special needs. We don’t flash a road sign that says “Autism Meltdown in Progress!”, so it’s easy to assume he’s a bratty, ill-mannered, aggressive 5-year old or that I’m a lazy, negligent parent. It’s also easy to be horrified at the scene and wonder why we’d even bring him into public and risk that kind of meltdown. We do it because practice makes perfect, and in order to get to the beautiful parts of special needs, sometimes we have to expose the ugly side.