Yesterday afternoon saw me drawing on one of my favorite parenting resources:
The kids had a nice afternoon with their cousin despite the presence of a pirate. I think he converted some of them to his ways, because there were a lot fewer giant marshmallows in the bag than expected.
The problem with having a nice time when you have sensory processing disorder is that a certain level of excitement can suddenly flip switch over to out of control terror. My daughters have different forms of this. One of them is triggered by sensory overwhelm. The other is triggered by happiness. That child reached five minutes to five and began to scream at ear-ringing levels. She started punching me as hard as she could, terror in her soft face. I grabbed her calm down card, but she couldn’t hear or attend yet. Then the doorbell rang. I had to let her punch me in the legs for a few minutes so I could handle the leave taking with her cousin. Without a doorbell, the strategy is: 0) Put in the earplugs so I can stay calm when she screams at me, 1) Keep her safe, 2) Catch her hands on mine to redirect to high fives, 3) As soon as she can focus enough to give high fives, use the card to model communication “I’m excited. What comes next? I need a hug.” 4) Let her finish high fives. Let her initiate a hug if she wants one. Hug her till she relaxes and lifts up her head. 5) Settle her in a calm down spot. 6) When she’s calm and relaxed, review strategies. We can jump on the fluff upstairs (a giant crash pad made of foam mattresses and foam filled beanbag seats) when we start to feel giddy or overwhelmed. We can use our card. When we lose our hands, we can give the hardest high fives in the world till we feel ok again. 7) Mommy loves you and understands. It’s scary to not feel where you are. You can ask me for help. You can give yourself a hug, too. You are a brave girl, and this is going to get easier. Your big brain is growing fast right now and gets confused sometimes, and practicing our strategies is going to help your brain not get lost.
This particular episode of meltdown calming was curtailed by the doorbell, though. Thankfully the calm was catalyzed by my husband getting off work and walking out of his office at 5pm. I passed my hollering child like a sack of potatoes to her dad, who carried her upstairs onto the quiet couch in the library, where she calmed down quickly. Nothing like a change in scenery and sensory input to redirect a meltdown if you can manage it safely.
I’m not sharing this to grumble about my sweet daughter, who is a wonderful person. I wouldn’t even mention this struggle publicly except that I have every confidence that she’s going to outgrow this pattern within six months, a year at most. I’m sharing it because after a meltdown, when I get a few minutes to reflect and trace triggers and prep so the next one is shorter, better managed, and headed off, the process itself is akin to the deep listening that feeds my spiritual life.
I listen to the whole set of patterns of behavior to find out what they are communicating. I look at activities and cognitive loads. This child is on a growth spurt and has been demonstrating her sweet, kind, creative nature more each day. Wednesday and Monday were wonderful therapy sessions. As I say when I try to prepare people who ask me what they need to know about being autistic, growth spurts have [big, dramatic] symptoms. I know that helping her add skills to her self regulation toolkit now will help her even more because of the beautiful plasticity of her big, complex brain that’s behind the meltdowns in the first place. My response can shape her. I can be a canyon wall to help her to grow deeper and stronger.
Then I look at micro patterns. Lots of us autistic people have a tendency to forget to eat when our brains are busy if we don’t prompt ourselves. We parents decided to make extra of this child’s favorite foods this week to keep in the fridge drawer she can reach. We’re setting up opportunities for her to self regulate.
Then I ask what I can do to stay calm and not take her outbursts personally. This time went well. But that screaming can trigger *my* autistic overwhelm, which can make me struggle to find words for a minute or two.
So this morning, when another (smaller) meltdown had passed, after reflecting on the pattern, I asked my husband to tape up some foam earplugs around the house. That way when a child loses their sense of themselves and tries to vocal stim at high pitches or loud volumes to find their way back, I can get closer to them rather than moving away to protect my ears.
I told y’all that to give context to the one piece of meddling big sister advice I will give about spiritual life based on my study of church history and observations of lots of good people: Never trust an ungrubby mystic. If you spend a lot of time contemplating God, you will look like someone who is very practical, up to his or her elbows in service and chores. Contemplating the Incarnate God means you meet Him, are taught by Him, guided and challenged by Him, through your hands and feet and patterns of your real (physical, tangible) life. I used to think it was a coincidence that the great loving ones were the great serving ones, but now I see it cannot be otherwise (well, sure it can because God is generous and likes to tuck surprises everywhere, but most people meet the Lord in the messy places).
When I am trying to help a kid whose behavior seems on a shallow level to be abusive (or to simply navigate a double child meltdown like happened earlier when I broke my own rule and let the kids play too many games in a row until the two youngest made a game of kicking me), I have to fact check their behavior and my own feelings constantly. If they hurt me enough that I feel adrenaline, it’s especially important to focus. Look what happened. They were happy, and they became too stimulated by their strong happiness. They lost their abilities to self regulate when they crossed the line from calm-happy to the type of happiness that’s so strong it bifurcated into two, then into three or more feelings. Happiness, fear of losing the sensation, lightheadedness, anxiety, wanting to connect, loss of impulse control, disappointment, frustration, confusion as their desires and outcomes are at odds, uncertain position in space. I remember the way I used to fret over layers of feelings. It takes a long time to learn to observe and name them without fear.
The whole while I’m doing this, I am asking God for mercy. For them, for me. As we ride the white water rapids of their growth spurts, I grab them and me both to the cross. It’s our boat through these narrow passages, and the waters? Even they are blessed.
A brother came to see Abba Macarius the Egyptian and said to him, ‘Abba, give me a word, that I might be saved.’ So the old man said to him, Go to the cemetery and abuse the dead.’
The brother went there, abused them and threw stones at them; then he returned and told the old man about it. The latter said to him, ‘Didn’t they say anything to you?’
He replied, ‘No.’
The old man said, ‘Go back tomorrow and praise them.’ So the brother went away and praised them, calling them apostles, saints, and righteous men. He returned to the old man and said to him, ‘I have complimented them.’
And the old man said to him, ‘Did they not answer you?’ The brother shook his head no. Then Abba Macarius said to him, ‘You know how you insulted them and they did not reply, and how you praised them and they did not speak; so you too if you wish to be saved must do the same and become a dead man. Like the dead, take no account of either the scorn of men or their praises, and you can be saved.’