I knew it was a meltdown, a total loss of control over his emotions coupled with the inability to make sense of the situation. As a kid, Allen’s meltdowns were more frequent and short-lived; as an adult on the autism spectrum, they are just the opposite: few and far between, but as intense as a storm brewing for days in the open water.
He couldn’t find his driver’s license. He’d taken a load of scrap metal to the junker down in Chester, but he needed the license to get paid. Ron and I were in the back room, painting the walls a peaceful shade of sea-foam green. I was finally, a year after Bonnie’s departure by marriage, taking back my office. I needed a space for my schoolwork and my writing, a place where my pens did not go missing and my books stayed where I left them.
The storm brewed all the way down 10th Street and erupted at our door, bringing with it a barrage of motion. Allen came pounding up the stairs, shouting, “Where’s my driver’s license?” He burst into the room where the tranquil sea-form green was already covering half a wall. “Someone took my driver’s license!”
While Allen’s diagnosis of autism is new, I have been his mom for a very long time. Meltdowns—that total loss of control feared by those on the spectrum and those standing on the edge—can be caused by an overload to the senses, too much information given too quickly, emotions, performance demands, shifts in expectations, or frustration. In this case—as with many who have autism—there was more than one ingredient. Waiting for job-training through Occupational Vocational Rehabilitation is hard on Allen, who deals with his special needs by keeping busy. The government works slowly, a word not part of my son’s vocabulary. Allen collects scrap metal to sell as a means of productivity and “the stupid guy at the junkyard” was thwarting what Allen saw as an immediate need.
Allen also suffers from sensory overload, a condition that sometimes causes him to line his windows with aluminum foil and unplug every electronic in the house. While the rest of us cannot hear the low hum of power, to Allen it sounds like a roaring waterfall. The sensory issues sometimes means he shifts sleeping spots during the night, seeking a place “quiet” enough to rest. Last night, he’d ended up in the back room. Boxes I’d carefully stacked up were rifled through and dumped out. No driver’s license appeared.
I knew better than to reason with Allen. His extreme need led to frustration which led to irrational behavior. After a fruitless search, he conjectured that a woman he worked with at Liberty tax had taken his license. Even though I knew it made no sense, I drove him to the office anyway. You can’t fight the forces of nature.
I could tell, though, that the most potent part of the meltdown was abating. In the passenger seat, Allen’s breathing was returning to normal. Even as we pulled up to the tax office, he was shaking his head and saying, “This makes no sense.”
That’s the main thing to remember about a meltdown; they make no sense to participant or observer. They are triggered, often inexplicably, by an outside force meeting an internal mechanism. Flint against stone. Wind against leaves. The world explodes.
By the time we had driven back home again, Allen had reasoned that a driver’s ID could be replaced and chances were it had been “misplaced” not stolen. The time was creeping onto 2:00PM by then, and I needed to shower and change out of my paint-spattered clothes to take Ron to a doctor’s appointment. While I was in the shower, Allen took possession of my cell phone.
I asked him for it as Ron and I left the house. “You can’t have it,” he said. I asked why, even though I knew better than to expect an explanation. “I don’t know,” he said. “I just need it.” He offered me his cell phone in exchange.
It is both useless and time-consuming to try and make sense out of a meltdown, but I wondered if Allen’s “need” of my cell phone was a way for him to fulfill the thwarted need of the driver’s license, a way to regain some control of a situation in which most control had been taken away. I knew, wise reader that I am, that a meltdown was usually followed by exhaustion. I fully expected to come home and find Allen napping on the couch.
But when we returned two hours later, Allen had painted another wall in my future office, had checked the PennDot web site to see how to get a duplicate license, and had called the “junk guy” to explain the situation. He gave me back my cell phone and went to bed early.
And I stood in the back bedroom for a while, admiring the calmness of the sea-foam green walls.