How I cope with meltdowns in my adult son


My son has high-functioning autism and sometimes has melt-downs. They are indeed getting fewer and further between. That’s a promising thing, you’d think. But in fact my son is 22 years old so that a meltdown in a person that size (he’s over six foot and 96 kilos!) is a matter of real concern. His voice booms and his manner is truly terrifying.

The latest one we experienced was on our recent trip out for his work. We were both on the job being trained as couriers (see my blog last month) and there were several skills to learn – using the designated app on his phone, following the GPS, making enquiries at the depots, asking for signatures, loading the van safely, etc, etc. At each particular point in the pick up and drop off, I was giving Jamie advice on what to do and reminding him the best way to do it.

It was our third day on the job and at the end of our workday, we crossed the road towards our home together when he suddenly turned around and smashed his Esky on the ground.

“Just leave me alone!” he screamed. “Don’t help me! Don’t say, ‘Press Arrive’ and ‘Press Depart’. You just don’t know nothing! I can do it! I can do it! I don’t need you!” He was standing right in front of me and towering over me and shouting at the top of his voice. He continued in this vein for another two or three minutes then turned tail and went inside.

I did nothing. I was just amazed. He had kept it inside him all day and I realised I must have been angry at me all the time. I also realised any words I could say at that point would do nothing to salvage the situation – they would just incense him. So I walked in after him, fed the dog, went downstairs to change and have a shower and came back up for a glass of crispy, sparkling champagne. Inside I was shaking.

Jamie was sitting on the sofa, scowling.

I sat down opposite him and waited. He eyed me nervously. I took a long drink from my glass and announced: “You did very well then, Jamie.” His eyes widened. “Yes, you did.” He could hardly believe what I was saying. “You’ve been storing up that anger for three days and you didn’t show it. But in the end you had to.”

I waited for my words to sink in.

“Shall I tell you why I’m pleased with you?” I asked.

“Er… Yes.”

“It is because you waited. You waited until we were at home and no-one could hear us. You weren’t shouting in public. You waited until we were off the road so we weren’t arguing while driving, which could be dangerous. You had to release your anger so you did it in the best place and you spoke clearly and told me what had angered you. You made sense. It’s important to release your anger but to do it in a way that doesn’t hurt another person. So I’m happy you didn’t get physical and hit me. You shouted. And now – you feel better, don’t you?”

“Er… Yes.”

He looked totally confused – but also relieved. I had pointed out the plusses of his actions and shown him that far from being intimidated by him, I could pull out the good points of his meltdown and try to find some positives in it.

And I did mean it. There was another family member who used to have serious meltdowns regularly and it was terrible when they took place in public. So I caught one positive from it.

“And you spoke clearly – I could understand what you were complaining about. You didn’t just scream at me… And finally you didn’t hit anything. You didn’t kick anything either. You threw the Esky on the ground, but you didn’t do any damage.”

Jamie hesitated.

“So I’m okay?”

“Yes. Everyone gets angry and it’s important to let that anger go. You shouted at me, but you didn’t hurt me and you did it in the right place – at home privately. So thank you.”

“Oh.”

“And tomorrow I shall try not to do things for you or remind you of what you should do.”

And that’s what happened. I let Jamie take over the next day – and guess what? He did it all by himself. I had no need to fuss over him at all. And at the end of the day, I said to him, “So was I better today? Do you feel happier?”

“Oh, yes.”

It’s a salutory lesson to learn as a parent – that you can just back off and learn that dealing with explosions is better when you let some time pass in peace and quiet and then gently, quietly reconstruct what has happened, finding as many positives as you can.

It’s a lesson that I’ve found works for infants and adults with or without disabilities.

Heather Jones is the author of Talk to Me about how she taught her son to communicate. She lives in Brisbane, Australia, and can be found at her Facebook page and email at contact@heatherjonesauthor.com.

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