Friday, September 19, 2008

Tantrum: Typical or Not?

Most of the time I have no idea why my daughters start a tantrum. It is usually only in hind sight, I can hypothesize what led up to the tantrum although, I never know accurately why or what instigated the revolting reactions known as The Tantrum.

Before I go on, let me clear up what I am talking about when I say tantrum. Because, a lot of kids have tantrums. They usually throw them when they didn't get their way or maybe when they didn't have enough sleep or are hungry. And, to a stranger, that is what our daughters' tantrums might seem like at the moment. But please, let me elaborate.

Let's take Sienna's tantrum from this evening as an example. Sienna came home from first grade, just as peppy as could be. We got out our Halloween decorations and started placing the pumpkins and scarecrows throughout the house. She was bright-eyed and spunky and at about 4:00 or so, she asked if she could watch some TV. I said no problem and off she went to watch some Hannah Montana.

It was time for dinner around 5:00. We typically eat at the dining hall where Fred teaches school. Fred quietly and gently announced to Sienna that we would be leaving for dinner in a few minutes and then, What? What just happened?

Sienna starts screaming. She normally loves to go to the dining hall for dinner but for some reason, tonight, she started screaming, "NO! NO! NO! I don't WANNA go to the dining hall. I don't WANNA go to the dining hall. NO! NO! NO!" Fred walks away and finds me. We both are shelter for one another when this sort of thing happens. I asked him with sarcasm, "What did you do to her?" He replies, "I just told her we were going to dinner." I could hear her wailing upstairs, screaming the same phrase over and over. I think that she could be in a heavy metal band with those lyrics. Do they even still have heavy metal bands? I digress...

So, I walk upstairs. I think I can help. WRONG! Nothing I say works. In fact, she tries to kick at me and misses my face by a chin hair. Not that I have chin hairs, I don't.

I walk away, reminding her we will be leaving in five minutes. I also remind her that going to the dining hall isn't a choice but how she behaves is a choice. "Do you think you are making the right choice?" Uh-Oh. Now she's pissed. She crawls after me like I am prey and tugs on my shirt as if she wants to fight. I calmly remove her hand and tell her that I will see her in the van. I tag my husband to take on the next phase with her while I get my other daughter shoed and place her in her car seat. We then wait inside the quiet and safe van. The door to the garage flings open, I think Sienna kicked it open. Fred is carrying her to the van. She is screaming, arms and legs flailing all around. We pull out of the drive way. Same as it ever was... one of my favorite sayings from a Talking Heads song bounces and mumbles around in my brain. These thoughts humor me while I hold steadfast to my own sanity.

I press the button on the sun roof to close it. Her screaming can penetrate through the body of the van and our neighbors don't need the sun roof opened to make the acoustics more clear. Thankfully, it is a quick two minute drive. Normally we would ride bikes but obviously that would be difficult today. We all get out of the van, all but the tantrum-tiger. The students from the private school walk by looking polished and proper and look at us. The faculty also look at us. I am always aware of the public eye watching carefully. I feel judged as if I am a child abuser. I swear to you that I am not. Although, there are times when we lose our tempers and we yell at her. I feel bad about those times because, if you realize and accept that she does have PDD-NOS and how difficult it is for her to maintain and manage her moods, then yelling at her when she struggles like this is equivalent to screaming at a disabled person in a wheelchair to get up and walk. Fred calmly tries to reason, negotiate, bribe. No can do.

She now has gained her composure but she sits stiffened, chin downward, staring at us with her eyes rolled up so all we can see is the whites of her eyes. A good look for the album cover of a heavy metal band. Wait... they don't make album covers. I am totally dating myself. I mean, a good look for an iTunes thumbnail... I'm telling you, I have to entertain myself during these crisis situations.

Somehow, we manage to all go into the dining hall. However, Sienna remains at the door, as if to make a statement to remind us she didn't want to come to the dining hall. She sits on the floor and then starts to growl and scream. "I WANNA GO HOME. I WANNA GO HOME. I WANNA GO HOME."

A nice lady from our community who volunteers at the private school walks by and says, "Well, sometimes you just have to ignore it." This nice lady also happens to be a Kindergarten teacher from Sienna's school. The same school that claims that nothing is wrong with my daughter. She shows no sign of autism or any other pervasive developmental problems at the school and that, "only the mother must need parenting classes and counseling." This is a phrase that the school's psychologist shared with my husband before our case conference last year. This phrase haunts me daily - and sometimes at night it wakes me up from a deep sleep.

We eat, put our dishes on the rack. Luckily, there were only a total of six of us in the dining hall tonight so we weren't too embarrassed. We are able to bribe Sienna to get in the van with a cookie. She of course was supposed to get in control by the time we got home. But she didn't gain control, so she lost her chance with the cookie. Good thing, because I need all the comfort food I can get right now. Sienna stomps in the house then starts hitting her head saying, "I'm a bad girl. I'm a bad girl..." Over and over again.

Is this typical? People say, "Well, all kids have tantrums right? Your kids are just normal. Maybe they are hungry, or tired or maybe you just expect too much from them or you don't discipline them enough."

Do you really think that the tantrum that I just described in this story is typical? It is for us. It is a typical tantrum. It happens when we don't expect it and then they don't happen when we might expect it. I am living on the edge of the unknown every minute of the day with both my daughters. I could share a typical tantrum that my two year who is also on the spectrum does too. I will save that for another post...

What makes our family dynamics more challenging is that our family and friends don't accept our issues as atypical. We aren't allowed to talk about it, get any sympathy for it, any respite. We are constantly judged by the public when we try to run errands. We don't do anything for fun anymore because something might go wrong. So, we stay home. We don't even go to church any more. Talk about the worst place to feel judged as a parent! Then we are judged because we are told that we don't expose the girls to enough that we don't go out enough. It is a never ending problem that every person we know is trying to suggest or give advice. Until you walk in my shoes, don't judge a mom with children on the spectrum. If you know someone who has a child on the spectrum, don't try to fix it. Don't try to minimize it.

And, a public message brought to you by a mom on the verge to losing her mind:

If a child has been diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder, they cannot out grow it. It is not something that the parents did to them to cause it, and it is not contagious. Remember this.


Maryellen said...

All I can say is (((hugs))) It sounds like a typical PDD-NOS tantrum to me and not just a 'typical' tantrum. It's so very difficult when a child is high functioning and people don't think they have issues and that it's parenting. I'd say you handled it as well as you could and better than I would. I have to say I'm a yeller, even though I know it only makes things worse, and I'm working on that. Hang in there. It sounds to me like you're a great mom with support from hubby. Stay strong. :)

BTW, I'm following you on twitter and followed your link from there. I'm mattsmom32.

autismfamily said...

Maybe I missed something, but I did not read where you asked your daughter why she did not want to go there.

The key is that we should not try to bring the child with autism into our world, but try to get into their world.

When she is not upset I would sit down and validate her concerns by asking her what she likes and does not like about eating there, maybe she wanted something specific.

Do you have any of the autism tshirts or the autism behavior cards that you can hand out to people?

I would worry more about the kids and here and now instead of what you cannot do or who is starting.

I have survived single parenting two boys 15 months apart on the spectrum. It gets better as they get older, until puberty well boys might be different than girls.

I changed the way things are done. We only go out for errands in the early AM, not at night time or early PM. We did have to go to back to school nite the other night and I prepared my son.

Transitions are very hard and planning needs to be done, structure and also they need time to deal with change or transitions.

I think a schedule board in the home showing various acivities might help her process this info.

Good luck - I have on my site articles under autism awareness that list sites and examples of shirts and autism cards.

Vicki G. said...

Hi - I am here from EntreCard. I read this post and thought I'd pass along a link that I've found to be very helpful! I encourage you to check it out as the link applies to your situation directly. As I was reading, the first thing I thought of was - did she eat something between getting home from school and 5:00. If so, what was it?

I hope you get a chance to read the page and do some research to see if this may help you. Have a great evening. :)

Kelly said...

My 5 year old autistic son is in kindergarten now. Going to church is so difficult. Attending functions for our other children is usually a one parent affair - the other one stays with our autistic child.

I've learned to ignore anyone rude enough to assume his disability should be cured or that he should be able to control it, but it sure wears us out to have to chase him around at public functions.

I think a big part of it for us was just learning not to feel guilty. We didn't cause the condition and we can't cure it. Learning to live with it for us has been a process of accepting that and accepting that others don't understand it.

Maybe I've got a thicker (or rougher) skin than I need, but those who decide to judge my parenting skills based on one child (when my others are at the top of their classes and outperforming their peers) can go jump in a lake. When I get those odd looks because my kid is acting out or those rude comments ... well lets just say it only happens once.

Nancy N. said...

That sounds like a classic autistic meltdown. I know, they happen all the time at our house if we aren't careful.

They have to be handled differently than a typical child's tantrum. The child's nervous system is out of control. They CANNOT make a choice to stop the behavior once they are at overload and meltdown (like a normal child could). Using techniques that will help stop the sensory system overload and restore order and focus to it are what will stop the meltdown. (We liken it at our house to a computer that has locked up and needs to be rebooted.)

Transitions (shifting to one activity from another) are notoriously hard for autistic children. In this case, your daughter was probably still somewhat overloaded from the Halloween decorating excitement and the abrupt transition to dinner was just enough to tip her into a meltdown.

Meltdowns can be avoided by doing things like learning what kinds of situations are likely to set them off and avoiding stacking them on top of each other, giving the child warning ahead of transitions instead of just saying "we're going now", and other methods like that. It takes practice but it does get easier also as the child gets older and the nervous system matures some and the child learns to communicate when they are getting on overload.

Have you read the book "Raising A Sensory Smart Child"? It's the absolute textbook on all this. Another good one is "The Out of Sync Child". Any good library should have them or Amazon does for about $10 each in paperback.

I hope that helps...things can get better. You just need the right information and help.

Ramblin' Red said...


Becky linked this post at her place - and I'm just saying I can relate. My LMNOB is a sensory integration kiddo and not on the spectrum for developmental reasons so much as this inability to process stimuli thing. Nevertheless, the tantrums are her most frustrating symptom and I relate. I recently wrote about her latest melt-down, in fact. You're not alone.