Snowflakes, Meltdowns, and Autism...

Several months ago an article appeared on Facebook showing an Autistic meltdown. I saw the article again yesterday, and for some reason (maybe because my ears were still ringing from the loud Queen Mother of all cuss words that was yelled in my ear because I wouldn't let Ethan have three simple laminating sheets), I was struck by it.

The video went something like this: 
While the mother is being interviewed, the son, who has autism, was sitting at the table alone. The baby sister walked in the house from school, and something about her arrival sparked the meltdown. The boy stood up, began muttering things, pounded on the walls, then went and sat in the middle of the floor, crossed his legs, and began slapping at them with his forearms. To this the mother pulled a few cushions off the couch, laid them under the boy and began what appeared to be obvious deep pressure therapy. Too much for her to handle alone, mom called for her husband who came and tagged in. They swapped places, and eventually after some water, and deep breathing exercises the boy calmed. The world had been saved...
The article described the meltdown as a tantrum; the mother declared it as almost universal in the autism community; commentators described it, with sincere one-upmanship, as calm compared to what they go through.

The fact is, meltdowns are common, but certainly not universal. They are nowhere identical as say one autistic child is to one another. But what does that really mean, identical?

I'm certain you've heard the old adage that no two snowflakes are alike. The short answer to the question is yes -- it is indeed extremely unlikely that two complex snowflakes will look exactly alike. It's so extremely unlikely, in fact, that even if you looked at every one ever made you would not find any exact duplicates. The long answer is a bit more involved -- it depends on just what you mean by "alike," and on just what you mean by "snowflake." So it is in the world of Autism.

While preparing to petition the court for guardianship of Ethan we had to have some examinations done. One of these required sitting down with his primary behavioral pediatrician. While visiting with him he made the statement that parents too often think their child is so different than other autistic children. While he sees it in completely the opposite view. He sees them as nearly identical in their tendencies, idiosyncrasies, characteristics, nuances, and ticks.

I disagree, to a point.  It is essentially a matter of the vantage point!

As a doctor, separated from these angels at a practitioners reach, he is looking upon them in a clinical setting. His vantage point is about monitoring, assessing, rating, reviewing, measuring, and analyzing. Certainly from this position the commonalities are far too coincidental. If they weren't it would be nearly impossible to diagnose, and categorize autism.

Parents, on the other hand, are looking through different glasses all together. Their views are mostly filtered from their hearts, exponentially magnified by frustrated hopes, refracted by implausible dreams, and diffused from the daily grind of care giving.

So, the reality is, the answer regarding sameness really depends to a large degree on what you mean by the question.

If you didn't know it already, let me share a few things about Autism - and especially meltdowns - in this house.

1) We have them.

2) Words are muttered during meltdowns.

3) Meltdowns carry with them some flailing.

4) Deep pressure therapy is used to diffuse them.

5) We use deep breathing techniques in conjunction with deep pressure.

6) Meltdowns run their course and eventually dissipate.

See, sounds identical to the family in the article, doesn't it?

However, there are a differences. Such as...

1) We have them over any number of reasons, but never because Baby came home from school. We have them over laminating sheets, toy dinosaurs, computer time, our refusing to buy a $500 trench coat so he can look like Inspector Gadget, because Baby took the TV remote, or over having to leave the house to go to dinner for Michael's birthday, etc.

2) Words are muttered in very loud tones which usually consist of the Queen Mother of all cuss words being thrown about as an adjective, verb, noun, pronoun, adverb, conjunction, and any other modifier that it could possibly be used as. His reasoning behind the use of such words? "That's how boys in high school talk to each other." - remind me to thank them!!

3) Flailing happens, and sometimes involve three right hooks, a few kicks to the chest, and biting - fortunately the bruising went away after a week, the kicks and the bite, though they caused a major welt and bruising on my back and chest, left no permanent marks.

4) Deep pressure episodes normally last about 10 minutes, but can continue for upwards of forty minutes and aren't complete without sweat - lots of it! they have also been known to have station breaks. For instance, one day, Kylie, our future daughter-in-law had come to the house. Ethan and I were in the middle of a major deep pressure wrestling match in the middle of the living room floor. As she walked in, I welcomed her and said, "Hi, come on in and I'm sorry!" Ethan looked back over his shoulder, welcomed her with a, "Hi Kylie; I'm going to kick my Dad's _ _ _!" He turned his face back to me, spit in my face, and it was game on for another five minutes.

5) Deep breathing exercises go something like this:
"Okay, take a deep breath."
    "Dad, I'm going to kill you." 
"I love you Ethan."
    "I love you too, you $%#&!" 
 "Deep breaths, like this..."
    "OMG!" 
"One more time, deep breath. Hold it."
    "I did!..." 
 6) Our meltdowns run their course, with deep pressure assisting in dissolving the emotions into a steady cry, which turns into a request to cuddle - which we gladly do without excuse! No harm no foul, even though our ears may still be ringing and our back feels like its bleeding. In the end we always cuddle because I need him as much as he needs me - in fact more so!

So you see, I'm not so much different as the parent in the article, as I am identical, any more than Ethan is any different or similar to their son. They say that the odds of having a duplicate snowflake occur is 1 in a thousand trillion, yet a snowflake is a snowflake just like every other snowflake. Think of it this way, you could be the one, and I could be the 1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,001.
"So you're telling me there's a chance. Yeah!"
Lloyd Christmas - Dumb and Dumber              
I suppose what I'm really getting at is that life is difficult enough already. Life already throws enough comparing, measuring, and judging at us, we certainly don't need to find other reasons to compare ourselves in order to lump sum us into an indistinguishable mass, or distance ourselves from everybody else in our own solitary world of individualism. I don't write for others to see how my life in a special needs family stands apart from them. I write because I live in a special needs world, and it's not so much different than yours, and therefore we are not alone. I write so that together we can see the tenderness in life, those brief glimpses of heaven, to find the healing humor of it all. "Through humor," said Bill Cosby, "you can soften some of the worst blows that life delivers. And once you find laughter, no matter how painful your situation might be, you can survive it." That is universal!

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