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Thursday, May 30, 2013

Emotional Meltdowns Part One

I recently received a question from a reader about temper tantrums. She asked, "Is it common while growing up with Aspergers to 'act out', and do you think it is helpful to the child to allow it in a public environment?"

First, let's not get the yelling and kicking of a temper tantrum mixed up with "stimming," such as rocking, flapping hands, and pacing, that can be associated with autistic behavior. I have heard stimming explained as a way to reduce stress and block out sensory input, and in that case, many believe it is kinder to allow the child to continue.

Speaking as an Aspie, I have hardly ever lost my temper my whole life, as far as pitching a fit, yelling, or lashing out in violence. But I have had emotional meltdowns in public as a child or teenager, bursting into tears and not being able to explain what the matter is because I'm too upset. Those meltdowns often had to do with some social situation where I didn't know how to ask for help, or felt overwhelmed by the stress of "dealing with people." So I do think they were brought on by some of my Aspie limitations.

Speaking as a mom, I know what I plan to do, but since my daughter is only two months old, I may end up revising my plans when the time comes. Here's the plan: I would choose to deal firmly with a tantrum that was a defiance of my authority, such as if I told my daughter to stop doing something or that she couldn't have something she asked for, and it made her mad. That is not the time to give in to what she wants to get her to be happy. Children need to learn to accept the answer no.

If a temper tantrum happens in a public place, it may be best to leave and go home so that other people are not bothered, and the child will miss out on having the outing continue. In discussing this topic with my mom, she adds that leaving a public place when a tantrum occurs can soothe a child who finds new or unfamiliar situations to be stressful, as Aspies tend to.

When I was little, my mom did not allow me to point at things in the store and say I wanted them. She quoted, "The Lord is my shepherd. I shall not WANT," (Psalm 23:1) and left the store. After that, I stopped "wanting," and I eventually realized that "I would like," or "May I please have . . .?" were polite alternatives.

Sometimes, though, it is not so easy to figure out why the child is having a meltdown. It could be a cry for attention, or feeling overtired, or misunderstanding the situation, or feeling anxiety and fear. In these cases, I think I would try to comfort and calm the child and see if she can calm down enough to answer questions as to what is wrong. This is where a child with Asperger's may have a harder time controlling her emotions and communicating what the problem is.

On the other hand, children with Asperger's are often quite bright and may be able to reason through situations that would upset other children. For example, when I was in third grade, I was called a wimp and called ugly. Instead of getting angry or upset, I objectively considered whether I really was a wimp (I decided I was) or whether I really was ugly (I decided I wasn't). In that case, my desire to discover the truth (an Aspie trait) trumped any emotional reaction which the bully probably wanted to see.

When a child is upset or angry, I would suggest what might be wrong or how the child might feel and look for a yes or no answer. Even as a teenager, I found it hard to describe my negative emotions clearly and link them up to the circumstances that caused the emotions. Hey, maybe that's STILL hard for me! But if a parent or friend is sincerely trying to find out what's wrong and how to help, it is very soothing.

Listening is even more important than doling out advice. For example, when I was seven years old and crying my eyes out, my mom tried to console me by saying, "Everybody has to practice and learn how to play kickball one step at a time." She didn't realize that although I WAS scared to play kickball, the real reason I was bawling was that a little boy (whom I didn't even like) had suddenly given me a kiss!

The reader who brought up this topic has made it a practice to send her children to their rooms according to the rule "no crying in public areas." She explains, "They were not to bother others while they let out their emotions." I think her rule is reasonable, and particularly helpful when children are trying to manipulate adults into giving them their own way. However, I can't really identify, because whenever I had a meltdown at home, I preferred to run to my room, or even hide behind my bed. So becoming emotional in public was actually highly embarrassing for me, and was not intended to draw attention or manipulate.

I believe that people with Asperger's sometimes cannot control their emotional reactions, but they can certainly benefit from a parent's training in how to deal with their feelings appropriately.



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