“Why do children with autism have such explosive meltdowns?
Parenting children with Aspergers and autism is not a job for the faint of heart. Of course, you never knew you were signing up for this, did you?
As a parent, have you ever been talking to another adult/parent of a typical child? Suddenly your child starts loudly letting you know that s/he wants to go home, please stop talking. As you ignore your child, the complaining gets louder and turns into a tantrum.
Or, you’re in a store and your child becomes fixated on a certain item s/he wants. You move away from that area, and all chaos breaks loose. Concerned adults stare at you, and some of them mutter something about how spoiled kids are these days.
These are trying circumstances, and they’re just the tip of the iceberg! They don’t see the day in and day out struggles over homework, getting ready for school, getting ready for bed, getting out of bed in the morning, brushing their teeth, getting dressed, and so on, and so on, and so on!
The purpose behind this article is to give you a paradigm for better understanding characteristics of children on the autism spectrum which make them particularly vulnerable to explosiveness, meltdowns, and tantrums. I want you to know that you are not a bad parent! Understanding is the first cornerstone in better parenting your child while maintaining your sanity.
Ross W. Greene is the Director of the Collaborative Problem Solving Institute in the Department of Psychology at Massachusetts General Hospital, Codirector at the Center for Collaborative Problem Solving, and Associate Professor of Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School. His research centers around treating children who are typically disruptive, explosive, and irritable. These children can have many different diagnoses, not just autism. What they share in common, though, are some characteristics that are vital for you to understand.
As a side note, remember that “the apple may not fall far from the tree.” I know, I know, your defenses are up. “Not me,” you say. But keep an open mind, and remember that sometimes, as parents, we may also share some of the characteristics of our children. For example, we may complain that our children are so inflexible. However, are we just as rigid sometimes in our parenting? Food for thought
As a parent, you may be asking, “What should I do with my child?!”
Instead, Dr. Greene suggests that we ask a different question:
What cognitive factors are contributing to my child’s learning disability in the domains of flexibility, adaptability, and frustration tolerance?
The key of Dr. Greene’s Collaborative Problem Solving Model for parenting explosive children is to understand that each child may be lagging in one or more of five different clusters or “pathways”. Therefore, you must understand that your child’s difficulties are due NOT to poor motivation on the part of the child, or due to your adult ineptitude. Rather, it just means that your child is lacking some specific cognitive/emotional skills in one or more of these five areas. It’s very relieving to understand this, because in the understanding lies the solutions.
The following list of pathways is taken from the Pathways Inventory, listed in Chapter 1 of Dr. Greene’s book, Treating Explosive Kids.
The first pathway is in the area called executive skills.
You will know that your child struggles in this area if you notice some of the following characteristics:
- Difficulty handling transitions, shifting from one mindset or task to another, or adapting to new circumstances or rules
- Poor sense of time/difficulty doing things in a logical or prescribed order
- Disorganized/difficulty staying on topic, sorting through thoughts, or keeping track of things
- Difficulty considering the likely outcomes or consequences of actions (impulsive)
- Difficulty considering a range of solutions to a problem
The second pathway is in the area of language-processing skills
You will know that your child has challenges in this area if you notice the following:
- Often has difficulty expressing thoughts, needs, or concerns in words
- Often appears not to have understood what was said
- Long delays before responding to questions
- Difficulty knowing or saying how s/he feels
The third pathway is in the area of emotion regulation skills
You will know that your child struggles with these skills if you notice the following:
- Difficulty staying calm enough to think rationally (when frustrated)
- Cranky, grouchy, grumpy, irritable (outside the content of the frustration)
- Sad, fatigued, tired, low energy
- Anxious, nervous, worried, fearful
The fourth pathway lies in the area of cognitive flexibility skills
If your child displays these characteristics, s/he may struggle in this area:
- Concrete, black-and-white, thinker; often takes things literally
- Insistence on sticking with rules, routine, original plan
- Does poorly in circumstances of unpredictability, ambiguity, uncertainty
- Difficulty shifting from original idea or solution; possibly perseverative or ruminative (in other words, cannot let go of an idea)
- Difficulty appreciating another person’s point of view or perspective
- Does not take into account situational factors that would suggest the need to adjust a plan of action
- Inflexible, inaccurate interpretations (also known as cognitive distortions) (for example, “Everyone’s out to get me,” “Nobody likes me,” “You always blame me,” “It’s not fair,” I’m stupid,” “Things will never work out for me.”)
The fifth pathway is in the area of social skills
By definition, children on the autism spectrum struggle in this area, but it’s helpful to see how it may manifest itself:
- Difficulty attending to or misreading of social cues/poor perception of social nuances/difficulty recognizing nonverbal social cues
- Lacks basic social skills (how to start a conversation, how to enter a group, how to connect with people)
- Seeks the attention of others in inappropriate ways; seems to lack the skills to seek attention in an adaptive fashion
- Seems unaware of how behavior is affecting other people; is surprised by others’ responses to his/her behavior
- Lacks empathy; appears not to care about how behavior is affecting others or their reactions
- Poor sense of how s/he is coming across or perceived by others
- Inaccurate self-perception
Once you understand these pathways, you will want to identify the situations in which your child blows up or “loses it”. Take notes on the situation, and see if the situation is such that highlights difficulties in any of these five pathways. Become curious, a parent detective if you may. By becoming aware of situations and what trigger the meltdowns, you will be developing a sense for why your child is melting down.
In future articles I am going to share Dr. Greene’s approach to helping your child develop the skills necessary to better cope, and to diminish the frequency and intensity of the meltdowns.
For further reading, you may enjoy this book from Dr. Greene: you can purchase it or check it out at your local library.
What about you? Does any of this resonate for you and your child? Does this make sense?
I look forward to hearing your comments.