Thursday, September 19, 2013

"Enfant Terrible"

So it's no secret that kids on the spectrum tend to have far more tantrums and meltdowns than the average person.  These can range from fairly mild to really loud, and sometimes even violent.  In my experience, it's almost always due to frustration because of an inability to be understood, hearing the word "NO," or a change in the routine or expectations.

It wasn't so bad when she was still little.  Every single kid melts down, especially at the completely packed grocery store where people are doing their holiday shopping...because that is nice and embarrassing, right?  People understand when they're little.  It's when they get bigger that they "should know better."  

Laurie used to be pretty mild-mannered.  She was a mellow baby, and was pretty much content to go with the flow.  See how cute?

As autism firmly took hold of our sweet little girl, the tantrums and the meltdowns came along gradually.  At first, Laurie was easy to redirect, and until recently, a tantrum or a meltdown would really only last for 30 seconds, tops.  We often would do things that would circumvent the triggers, like allow her to watch whatever she wanted to on TV, or give her any snack that she wanted as long as she "requested" it either verbally, on the iPad or through the use of pictures.  It was supposed to be "rewarding" her for reaching her goals of effectively communicating, or in the case of allowing her to watch TV, give us a short period of time to do things like go to the bathroom, cook dinner or merely collapse.

One particular quirky trigger is that, when we're driving somewhere, Laurie hates, Hates, HATES U-turns.  She'll start shrieking and kicking the driver's seat every time.  We often drive around the block rather than suffer her wrath.  And if we're trying to avoid her seeing Chuck E. Cheese, we'll often just take the highway so we don't go anywhere near the place.

As time went on, Laurie became more demanding as she became more verbal.  I suppose some of it is just a natural progression of could see glimpses of a "normal" kid who was testing boundaries.  But, as you can imagine, Laurie slowly became a bit of a tyrant, and now we're really struggling with this on occasion.  The TV is always on, and very rarely on a show that any of the rest of us would like to watch, even if Laurie is in the other room.  She constantly yanks on us to twirl her around in the swing, to get her snacks and drinks, to take her to Chuck E Cheese.

She is on a medication to help with some OCD (Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder) tendencies, as well as her tantrums, and that medication makes you really hungry.  Laurie wants to eat constantly....GF pretzels, GF waffles, GF cookies, bananas, chips, Cheetos, chocolate....she is constantly asking for these items.  Over the summer her want for these items reached a fevered pitch.  We have scaled back how much she can have in a day (really, how many Cheetos does one really NEED in one day?), but along with that, her tantrums have escalated to a surreal level.  With every "No," she drops to the ground screaming like she's being tortured.  If we tell her, "No, you can't wear your princess dress to school," we get a lot of yelling and sometimes even some hitting.

So now we're changing our approach and the way we react to things, and the kid gloves have been taken OFF!  It is evident to everyone who knows her that the kid is smart.  I personally believe that she's been using the "autism card" to her advantage ("Oh, look at me!  I'm cute and autistic...and did I mention cute?!?!  Those fools think I don't understand anything, so I get to do whatever the heck I want!"). Well, little girl, not anymore.

While I understand that she does have some behaviors that she just can't get past (thank you, OCD), some of those are actually learned behaviors, and we have been working with her to "unlearn" them.  This means that there is no room to be wishy-washy.  You have to mean what you say, and you have to enforce it Every. Single. Time.  If you have changed something, such as shutting off the WiFi to her iPad (because of her perseveration on it), and you've weathered the tantrumming storm that had ultimately ensued, you cannot simply turn it on again. Because when you go to shut it off once more, those tantrums will be unlike no other you have ever seen.

To get a handle on some of the behaviors, I have found that if I have a stern voice and tell her how it is without wavering, then I have better results.  ("NO, you are NOT going to eat a banana right now because it is time for dinner.  Get off the floor and go sit in your chair RIGHT NOW." or "NO, it is NOT ok to hit if I don't put the movie in that you want.  You will NOT get to watch your show now.")  Unfortunately, by the time I can be heard over the tantrum, I am yelling, but sometimes that is just the way it has to be.

Sometimes speaking in that manner...without the pleases and the thank yous...really is effective.  I hate it, though.  I sound like such a mean person...but sometimes enough is enough.

I'm confident that the tantrums will become fewer and less fevered...especially as Laurie grows and becomes better able to communicate.  Until then, we will simply continue to try to find the best strategies to get through the tantrums and to help her (and us) cope.  Some days it's just second by second...