Tuesday, December 16, 2008

An Essay: What Meltdowns Mean to Me

A friend, who is a non-native English speaker, once asked me to define what I meant by the word meltdown. I suppose I could have merely said the word tantrum and she would have understood. I suppose the words tantrum and meltdown can technically be exchangeable. On one hand, the word meltdown merely seems to a more politically correct word than tantrum. On the other hand, the word meltdown seems to infer something else entirely.

After witnessing and enduring the meltdowns of my child with autism for many years, I started to think that maybe there is a subtle difference between the tantrum and the meltdown. Tantrum means one is being naughty because the person either didn't get what they wanted or they felt that people (i.e. mom or dad) were being unfair. Trust, me, a child with autism can still be naughty and use tantrums to manipulate. I know that from experience too.

But, meltdowns, the way I'm thinking of them do not generally indicate manipulation. Meltdowns indicate a complete and total loss of control of one's emotions when the person becomes completely overwhelmed by a situation. They can occur as a result of a trigger such as a super loud sound, a change of routine, or a profound disappoint. Sometimes those triggers are easy to foresee and a parent can guide a child smoothly past them without difficulty. Sometimes they are hidden and kaboom a meltdown hits.

Sometimes the meltdown happens privately as in one's own home. That is the location I think most parents and likely individuals would prefer. Sometimes, though, they happen publicly with varying results. If one is fortunate, bystanders will either ignore the situation or offer to help. If one is less fortunate, someone will utter a nasty comment about the person's behavior or the adult's apparent lack of control. It's also possible that security may (at least try to) escort those involved in the chaos off of the public property.

It's not always possible, I have discovered, to be completely in control when one's child vents in public. Sometimes it is quite possible to end up in a crappy situation and an embarrassing meltdown moment occurs. Sometimes they turn out alright and the person out of control will be able to function after venting for a few minutes or more.

Ultimately, I believe the word meltdown definitely deserves a definition separate from tantrum. I liked this definition on urban dictionary for meltdown: "1. Describes what happens when a person freaks out, cracks, loses control of themselves. Life - reality at large- becomes overwhelming. They just can't deal with it all. The person may act out, withdraw, become emotional, run, etc... "

A word of caution though: While perusing the same site, I also ran into another definition of meltdown: "something that is crazy fun or really tight. Usually said when having a good time."

Oh right. If someone in the autism community used meltdown to invoke that meaning, I would probably be downright confused. Meltdowns in the freaking out sense of the word has been part of my world far too long. Now that my child is ten, they don't happen as much. We've become much better at techniques in regards to handling meltdowns. Don't get me wrong though. Meltdowns are still difficult around here when they occur. I dread them and somewhat fear them, but it's a part of my world I do my best to accept and endure with as much compassion as possible.


Casdok said...

C has less meltdowns with me as he has got older, as i have learnt to control his environment better and i have learnt better how to handle them. He has also taught himself ways to destress before he gets out of control. So things do improve - thankfully!

Love the new look! :)

Anonymous said...

That's a good way to describe the distinction between tantrums and meltdows (and to note that kids who usually have meltdowns can have tantrums).

Anonymous said...

Very interesting post. It is a very hard thing to describe to another person who does not have a child who has meltdowns. I relate them more to a seizure than a tantrum since M has little to no control over them, they can last for a short time or a very long time and they affect everything about her life and her ability to function more than a tantrum.

Gavin Bollard said...

Very similar to my own thinking. A meltdown is a loss of control but a tantrum usually has a purpose, and therefore control.

Barbara Newson said...

Meltdown and tantrum to me on a comparison level are not remotely connected. The two are so totally opposite in rhyme and reason. The precipitation of a meltdown constitutes a total almost disconnect with the present situation. If you take the time to notice the child's eyes during the meltdown, it seems like they're catatonic in the moment and wide eyed. Tantrums to me denote a sense of maniplulation and control.