The meltdown was in full swing. A few months ago, my Kid dropped her tablet and cracked the glass. It still worked, but the crack had been feathering its way across the screen. My husband had been carrying the tablet in his pocket and forgot, and sat on it. Tablet still worked, but it was completely cracked, and Kid was freaking out. The fact that there was a new tablet at home did not alter the fact that daddy had wrecked the original one and the meltdown was occurring in the middle of a food store on a Saturday afternoon.
Any parent the world over has experienced a tantrum. The explosion, screaming, tears, throwing things, the brief pause to assess the audience and impact, and then repeat until parent caves or kid figures out it isn't working. It's all about the presentation.
A meltdown is very different, although to an outside observer, it has the same appearance. Tears, screaming, thrashing...but no pause for effect assessment. A meltdown is triggered by an inability to deal with something, either sensory, cognitive, emotional or mental. It's like the breaker on the fuse box trips. In the middle of a meltdown, the child is completely unaware of surroundings, behaviour or reaction-s/he has hit maximum capacity and blown. Until the meltdown winds itself down, reason, discussion or resolution are impossible. You can try hugging it out but you're probably going to end up with a nasty bruise or three. Quiet and space can limit the meltdown duration, but once it's on, waiting it out is the only option. On more than one occasion, my Kid has had no recollection of what has transpired in the previous minutes (or hours). She's lost in the overload, fighting to find her centre.
So there we were, on a Saturday afternoon with a 10 year old child in the cart in full blown meltdown. We already ignore the dirty looks of the 10 year old, almost 5 foot tall child in the cart. If we get the errand completed faster with her riding in the cart playing Minecraft, then ride she does. A man was standing trying to get around the firestorm to buy salad dressing. I moved the cart and apologized.
"No worries, I have a 3 year old. I guess I have that to look forward to." He walked away before I could explain.
I've started explaining. I'm facing the judgey people head on and explaining what they are seeing. Sometimes, I say "She has special needs and it's been a long day." When others make rude comments in front of my child, I fix them with my best mom glare and say "You know that was out loud, right?" One cashier patted my hand and said that she was also the mom of a special needs child and we shared a look of profound sympathy and understanding. People judge. That isn't going to change, but if I can make one person re-think their assumption, then I'm furthering understanding.
Since the meltdown was showing no signs of abatement, I headed to the other end of the store to grab items to expedite the trip. The same man who had been buying salad dressing was now in the dairy aisle and he caught my eye and nodded his head in the direction of the continued meltdown berating of my husband and the broken tablet.
"I'm being the responsible parent, I walked away," I quipped as I grabbed the cream cheese and yogurt.
"What's the big deal. It's a tablet, not a crisis," he answered, looking again in the direction of my family.
"She was born with fetal alcohol disorder because of her birth mother's alcohol use. It causes challenges and little things are big things. This was a big thing," I answered. Was it any of his business, no. But he hasn't asking to be rude, he genuinely seemed to want to understand.
He listened carefully, and then thanked me for clarifying. And then apologized because he had been thinking it was indulgence rather than overload that was causing the meltdown. "Parenting is tough," he said.
"Yeah, but worth it," I answered. He nodded and went on his way.
My daughter's life feels like Costco on the Saturday before Christmas every minute of every day. She has to fight so hard just to do basic tasks. She manages to keep it together at school and then meltdown when she's home and safe. When stores are too bright, or too hot or too loud or too busy, she can't process and she overloads. To the outside world it looks like she's pitching a fit. I've learned it's actually a cry for help. We ride it out together.
And so, I will continue to advocate, educate and enlighten. Judge me if you will, but you need all the information first. Education breeds understanding and acceptance and that's good for everyone.