A flat battery and an autistic meltdown

It’s that time of night when the kids are tucked in bed and I breathe a sigh of relief that the day is done. Today was a tough one.

We went out of town, which went fine, but things turned a bit sour as we began our journey home.

We pulled over to get some lunch and eat in the car due to COVID-19 restrictions. This was all fine until my husband turned the key to start the drive home.

No engine.

Strangely we had driven an hour to this place and around the town, to then suddenly have the car not start.

We sat in the car, kids in the back munching on their sandwiches, while my husband dialled roadside assist and spoke to the call take over speaker. I did a quick turn to look at the kids. What I saw next speaks directly to their personalities.

The younger one sitting there continuing to eat like all is ok in life, totally her attitude – brush it off and keep going.

The older one, our autistic 2e child, sitting quiet with tears starting to stream down her face.

I looked at her, suddenly realising she was quietly falling apart, and asked “what’s wrong?”. She mustered enough breath to say “will we ever make it home?”.

While my husband continued the conversation with the call centre person, communicating our basic issue and location, I gestured for her to get out of the car so we could chat.

It escalated from there. Confusion. Dread. Panic.

I held her as she wept.

When she hits an irrational state and weeps, there is no point trying to talk through things logically. Sometimes the tears need to flow for a bit and she needs to be held.

Like a person with mental health challenges, with a panic attack, or someone falling apart, an autistic meltdown is different for everyone and cannot just be switched off. You cannot just get over it. It’s like a process that needs to be worked through.

My daughter has never experienced a flat battery in a car, nor have we ever talked about it. It has not really occurred to me that one day she could be in this situation. It’s to many no big deal.

To be honest, the roadside assist took only 5 mins to arrive. We were back up and ready to go with a running engine in no time. But that moment of uncertainty was all it took to send this person into a broken state.

What did I do?

I held her and rubbed her back.

I got her to let some emotion out, then just breath a bit.

Then I started to talk through the logic and the options of how to fix this situation.

We were across the road from the local train station. The first point – if the car is broken, we’ll get a train home. Easy!

The trick is to think about what she is worried about the offer solutions to drive the emotion towards a calmer state.

Uncertainty and sudden anxiety can be a nightmare for an autistic person, especially one who thrives on structure and knowing what is coming next. A situation like this can throw that person into a panicked state that can at times last a while.

As a parent of this person, I find myself either thinking through worst case scenarios so I know what could possibly triggered a tough moment or day. I also find myself often mitigating risk.

As an autistic person I know very well the time spent mulling over those scenarios in your head to ensure you can plan and feel in control. I now do this for 2 people… or perhaps more. Just because my other daughter isn’t autistic doesn’t mean I don’t worry about her!

After a chat, some fresh air and talking through the situation, we were ok and back on our journey… all this time pretty sure the other kid was still sitting calmly eating that sandwich.

The experience, like many others in the past, can be exhausting.

My hat goes off to any parent in this position who constantly carries the worry or challenges of avoiding or dealing with autistic meltdowns in their kids. It is a tough process and becomes an expert skill. You are not only dealing with the now but guiding to help them become able to handle this later in life and work through situations solo should that ever arise.

Know that you are not alone and take time to pat yourself on the back. And hug your kid.

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