Or maybe not so sweet, or perhaps not as short as you would’ve liked.
Part of parenting is wanting to share the world with your child. You want them to delight in all the things that you delight in, to show them the mystery and wonder of the world. And in doing so, you might recapture some of your own awe at how beautiful life can be.
Parenting an autistic child means that sharing the world with your child is a risk. Every outing is a potential disaster, not in the same way of my three-year old might whine and cry kind of disaster. No, I’m talking about a full-scale meltdown at the drop of a hat.
Take, for instance, the Christmas Train. This is a cute train at Irvine Regional Park that runs in the evening with the railroad lined with Christmas lights. The train runs from the “depot” to “the North Pole.” It was something I truly thought Connor would enjoy since he’s super into Christmas this year.
Unfortunately, I did not account for how much waiting in line would be involved.
Autistic children are cursed with an inability to wait. As noted by a father of an autistic boy in this essay, many children on the spectrum just do not have a sense of time. They cannot count tell how fast or how slowly time is moving. They cannot pace themselves. And when they start to feel anticipation for something, it builds quickly and uncontrollably towards a crescendo that may be ill-timed. When that expectation for joy isn’t met, anxiety and frustration build quickly on the heels of disappointment. There is no self-regulatory mechanism within my child (or children like him) to stop the avalanche of emotions or to calm himself once the avalanche has begun. I use the word avalanche so you can truly picture what it is like. It begins with a little crack at the top of the mountain and ends up with an entire hillside coming apart. There is no stopping it either. The best you can do is to ride it out and hope that there will be survivors at the bottom.
So when Connor was incredibly excited for the Christmas train, waiting in three separate lines just wasn’t going to work. We waited in line to get to the depot. Then we waited in line inside the depot for the train. And once we disembarked the train, we were supposed to wait in line for Santa.
What was supposed to be a short and sweet activity was turning into a debacle of wait times and lines filled with strangers.
Connor could simply just not calm himself down any further. There were no distractions in the world that were going to take his mind off the fact that to get to Santa he would have to wait in line for a minimum of 30 minutes.
So the whining began, followed by crying, quickly devolving into screaming. Then there was no stopping it. The meltdown had begun.
Of course, like many other parents of ASD children I have an arsenal of weapons I use to avoid such a situation. We do a countdown, we have games we play, I have my iPhone filled with Connor approved apps, I have juice and snacks in my purse, and I have an unending ability to completely embarrass myself in public for the amusement of my child.
Yet all of these techniques failed.
We had to move on to calming. I tried to get him to self calm, using phrases he knows and can repeat. I tried using “first…then” scenarios to get him to comply. I gave him deep pressure hugs. I tried to bribe him! Nothing worked. He was just too far gone and we just had to wait until he came out of it.
A year or so ago, the tantrum would’ve easily lasted an hour or more, only petering out when he had exhausted himself. Now, I am happy to report, these types of tantrums last only 20 minutes! That is amazing progress!
Connor was able to calm himself as soon as we got back on the train to return to the depot. We had no more whining, no crying, no screaming, no throwing himself on the ground, despite the fact that we had completely missed Santa. A year ago Connor would have continued to cry and beg for Santa until he fell asleep. Last night he accepted that the evening was over and it was time to go home.
He got an ice cream on the car ride home. I think he deserved it.