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Wednesday, December 14, 2011

We Have Lift Off for Meltdown.

Yesterday we took a trip to the emergency section of our local hospital as Harri has added another scar to his angelic face. This time a couple of stitches in the forehead caused by tripping head first into the corner of a wall. As soon as I could stem the bleeding and yell for his sister (who is home from school with a virus) to put on some shoes we were in the car and on the way. Harri was remarkably calm once our journey commenced and presented his war wound happily for the triage nurse to inspect when we arrived.

Then the dreadful wait with a rambunctious child and his gaping head wound. Another nurse having another look at the cut and then placing another bandage over it to replace the one the triage nurse had put on earlier to replace the one I had put on before we left home. Then the doctor comes, decides stitches are warranted despite my attempt to convince him glue would be a far better option. So then it's the three adults, doctor, nurse and I holding him down while the local anaesthetic is placed into and all around the gash. Thus creating another surge of blood letting and howling, then the holding down again while the stitches slowly pull his head back together.

 Trying to distract him during this process I asked him if he wanted to go to the moon. We then took our imaginary rocket ship trip for a space adventure. This was quite effective and although not without the occasional struggle seemed to keep Harri reasonably calm throughout. Then he was cleaned up and we were off home. As we made our return journey I marvelled at how well he'd managed what had been quite a traumatic couple of hours. However just as that thought process ended Harri snapped.

By the time I removed him from the car at home he was screaming inconsolably. I tried to offer him comfort with food, drink, hugs, soft tickles, and looking at down water pipes (his current favourite thing) but nothing would do. The pent up anxiety and stress of his ordeal was unleashed in an almighty meltdown. As soon as he freed himself from my grasp he ran to the wall where the accident had earlier occurred and started bashing his head into it. His screams were so ear piercing I worried neighbours would call police. Helpless in the face of such ferocious emotion.

I realised he needed to be alone to vent his fear and frustration without my futile efforts exacerbating his behaviour. Putting him into his room and closing the door was incredibly hard but I wanted to prevent him from running back to the wall and banging his head again. It tore at my heart to think he might consider me an accomplice to his suffering rather than a loving mother seeking medical care for his benefit. And now I was closing him into his room, would he interpret this as another callous act?

Soon enough, after screaming for a few more minutes, he was asleep on the floor under his little table, his body still wracked with sobs, exhausted.  And once awake twenty minutes later he was calm and hungry, and happy enough. I was thankful and shellshocked.

This episode was a reminder of how complacent I'd become regarding the ways autism affects Harri. He manages so well in the day to day going about things. He doesn't seem overwhelmed by sensory input anymore, he appears to take changes to routine in stride, and if in the course of the day he injures himself, which is often, he recovers quickly, dusts himself off and gets back to the business of play. While tantrums are part and parcel of daily living with Harri, meltdowns are not. So I was taken aback by his extreme reaction, which appears to have been a post trauma response. It's as if the screaming and head banging were a way for him to process the awful events just prior. For me it was a horrendous half  hour. To watch your child suffer and not be able to offer solace is painful. But I also think I understand him so much better now. I sensed that leaving him alone was the kindest thing I could do rather than fussing over him and thereby increasing the amount of sensory input he had to process.

Raising a child with autism often requires going beyond instinctive parenting strategies, rather sometimes the best decisions are purely intellectual. They may go against our mothering instincts to reach out, to hold, to physically soothe. The best decisions are those reached by applying a therapist 'hat', analysing the behaviour and responding accordingly, leaving emotions aside. This can feel counter intuitive, like many other aspects of raising a child on the spectrum. It's tough, and it's easy to get wrong. Harri is my third child, and yet with him I am flying blind a lot of the time. It's scary, disconcerting and humbling.

This episode has reignited my mindfulness of how remarkable my little boy is. How hard he is working each day to cope with a confusing world, and how brilliantly he manages this complex task most of the time. He really is an extraordinary child.


  1. Bloody doctor.

    It is amazing when they "reboot", but I don't seem to have the same ability.

  2. 'Reboot' is a good way to put it Ajax. I think I can relate to it on some level. WE just drove past the hospital and he happily told me how he went there when he hurt his head. No apparent residual stress.

  3. ...You guys went to the moon?? Dang.

    Anyway, I'm glad he worked through it. Good call giving him some space.

  4. I confess that I occasionally let my sausage cry longer than feels comfortable when I know she needs a good old reboot. Works a treat. She comes out happier than before.

  5. Yep, It's about just backing off and letting them let it out. I get that.

  6. Me, I think that is one of the toughest things I've had to learn. Not being able to physically help my son when he's in the middle of a meltdown breaks my heart.