Dealing with a meltdown

Last month during my ‘TERACTIVITIES’ Program at the Osaka YMCA, I met the Japanese mother of an 11 year old autistic son who asked me this:

Q: My 11 year old son is very aggressive sometimes and shouts and even beats on me, anyone or anything around, whenever something sets him off. His triggers vary from not being able to throw a volleyball in the basket to banging into a fire hydrant when walking and the list goes on and on. He can be happy and loving one min, and aggressive and mean the next.  Speaking clearly one min and babbling nonsense words the next. I don’t know what to do?

A: The first thing I noticed was the interaction between the mother and son.  If the son said something in anger the mother countered then the son, then the mother and so on, a never ending story. To me it was like watching a boxing match between Pacquiao and Mayweather, a never ending stream of punches and counter punches. So the first thing I did was to ask the mother how long she had been dealing with this kind of situation in the same way and she said for 9 years ever since the boy was diagnosed as autistic.

My immediate reaction was to ask her if anything had changed in the boy during those 9 years of her dealing with the problems the same way and she said no. I then ask her if she dealt with the problems the same way for another 9 years when the boy became 20, did she think he would change, and she answered no to this too.  So I told her that isn’t it time that she thought she changed her attitude and way of dealing with her son’s problems and she read through the lines of what I was saying and said yes.

Here are just two basic steps that I suggested she try when something sets her son off:

Step One: Instead of getting excited and talking/shouting back loudly/angrily to the boy she should talk calmly to the child but in a firm voice and try to reason with him and get him to calm down instead of adding fuel to the fire. If this doesn’t work then to try step 2.

Step two: Give him time-outs.  E.g. when doing activities with other children if he gets angry then give him time-out breaks, away from other children and people so that he has time to assess and process the situation on his own and then, only when he is really ready i.e. promises to try and control his temper and has completely calmed down,  let him join back with the other children in the activity.

A further resort could be for the child to learn proper anger management techniques and coping skills (supported by the parent), through a comprehensive and monitored/recorded behaviour management plan.

During the full day program I also implemented the two steps above a couple of times when the boy got angry while participating in various activities with other children. I did not get angry and tried reasoning with the boy and when that didn’t work, I proceeded to step 2.  The outcome was that he seemed to realise two things: one, is that I was serious about what behaviour I expected from him and two, that if he wanted to join and have fun with others, he had to try and control himself. There was no need for me to do this a third time.  The mother who also participated together in the program, got a firsthand look at how to deal with the situation and promised to try to do the same thing, the same way and I am looking forward to meeting them again at my next YMCA program to see if she is following my advice or not.

Send your SPED questions directly to Cecil at theceebeecenter@gmail.com and the answers may be published here to help other parents with similar concerns. All personal details will be kept private and confidential.

About the author:
Cecil Burton is the director of The Cee Bee Center & School – A bilingual English (and Japanese) support center and school for children with special education needs and their families, and support for teachers and schools.