On the Verge of a Meltdown

Prather Harrell


No, not my autistic five year old son … I’m the one on the verge of a meltdown!

It was one of those days where I could not seem to make anyone happy. Jonah, my five year old, had been having a bad summer all along. I can’t say that I blame him. Here we go changing his schedule around from KinderPrep (ABA/habilitation) in the mornings and public preschool in the afternoons with a few therapies sprinkled in between, to therapies in the morning and KinderPrep in the afternoon and no more Mrs. Marsha period (his preschool teacher – Jonah completed preschool this spring and will be headed to Kindergarten this fall). The teachers changed, the students changed, some of his therapists changed — we flipped his entire schedule around and no one ever consulted him about it. I guess I’d be pretty pissed too if somebody started messing with the calendar in my blackberry and just expected me to go with the flow.  Much like my son, I don’t always handle change very well (I can be a little bit autistic that way).

I was simply trying to get out the door to drop off Jonah to physical therapy and none of my three boys were cooperating. My seven year old son Julien was acting like my two year old son, whining about having to eat pancakes instead of cereal, my two year old son Jace (who started his terrible twos at eight months) was being his typical demanding self and didn’t want to eat at all, and all the while Jonah was screaming at the top of his lungs about having been asked to brush his teeth. My husband was at work and I was at my wits’ end.

Jonah’s behaviors had reached an all time high this summer with his screaming and tantrumming at every request we made of him. It was as if I had two toddlers all summer long. I had been as patient as I could possibly be and I just didn’t have any patience left. I told Julien to straighten up and finish his pancakes or once we got back he wouldn’t be able to watch any TV, all day long. I turned on Thomas the Tank Engine to distract Jace for a few minutes so I could deal with Jonah and finish getting him ready to go. Jonah was beginning to get very angry and yelled, “I don’t want to brush my teeth!” I just looked at him. For the fourth time he pleaded, “I wanna play computer!” and for the fourth time I said, ”First, you have to brush your teeth and finished get dressed and then you can play PBS Kids.”

All Jonah heard was the word “first,” and he started to lose it.  He paid no attention to the rest of that sentence as he purposely got louder to drown out my denial of his request instead of actually hearing what I was saying to him. He continued to scream and whine, and it was like nails to a chalkboard — I couldn’t take it anymore! I grabbed Jonah by the arm firmly and yelled,


He’d already been put on time out once that morning by his dad before he left for work. We always allow the kids to feel what they’re feeling and try to validate how they’re feeling, but we give them two choices: feel bad (cry, scream or whine if they need to) alone in their rooms, or stay amongst the family, calm and pleasant. If they need time to themselves, that’s fine and when they feel better (and only when they’ve managed to compose themselves and can stop the crying and screaming in front of the rest of the family) they can come out and join the rest of us.

Jonah persisted to protest so I marched him into his room and told him, “You can come out when you’re ALL DONE SCREAMING!” I had to say it loudly so he could hear me … at this point it had become a contest as to who could yell louder.  Then he proceeded to do what he always does, which was to scream AS LOUD AS HE POSSIBLY COULD FOR AS LONG AS HE COULD, through the bedroom door, until he grew hoarse and voiceless.

It was glaringly obvious that this separation technique was not working well at all.  It simply stressed him out, stressed me out and no doubt bothered Julien and Jace, too, as they stared helpless and scared in the corner of the kitchen. My eyes welled with tears as I felt defeated and thought to myself, “God, there has got to be an easier way…”

In that moment, I decided to step into my bedroom where I could be alone and collect myself before I fell apart. I spent a couple minutes beating myself up for handling the situation all wrong. I shouldn’t have yelled. I shouldn’t have put him on timeout again — it clearly wasn’t changing his behavior. Was this autistic behavior or was he just being a testy five year old? I should’ve taken it easy on him. I shouldn’t discipline the autistic tantrums, just the five year old tantrums. Which ones are which? I should have given him more warning before I asked him to switch from a preferred activity (playing on the computer) to a non-preferred activity (brushing his teeth). I should have never let him play on the computer before getting ready for therapy in the first place. I should have never taken down his picture schedule. The list went on. 

Then, something told me to just stop. I took several deep breaths and said a quick prayer for God to grant me strength, patience, and clarity, then returned to the kitchen. Just as I was walking out of my bedroom, Jonah was walking out of his.

He looked at me with very sad puppy dog eyes and said tearfully, “I’m all done screaming, Mommy.”

I replied, “And what else do you need to say?”

He responded, “I’m sorry mommy,” with a quivering bottom lip.

I kneeled down eye-level to him and responded, “You make mommy very sad when you scream and cry. But I get very happy when you use your words! Show me your happy face.” He proceeded to force a smile. 

I said, “I love you. Do you feel better now?” 

He said, “Yes.” 

We hugged and then I said, “Me too! Now go brush your teeth.” 

He complied. And that’s when it hit me … look at how far he’s come! Even in the midst of the tantrum drama, he verbalized his protests, knew how to say he was done crying, and is about sixty percent able to brush his teeth on his own. Wow! I shouldn’t be beating myself up, I should be patting myself on the back, in awe of all of the hurdles we’ve jumped and mountains we’ve climbed. 

I should also note that, unfortunately, I’m not excused from the hardships of motherhood and parenthood just because I have a special needs child. The rules don’t change. There are going to be good days, great days, bad days and horrible days. My kids will take everything out of me, a lot of which will go unappreciated and unnoticed. And yet I will continue to give them everything I’ve got, and then some. I will make some parenting mishaps and mistakes. I’m going to lose my patience at times, I’m not always going to choose the best form of discipline, and despite my best efforts my kids will not always comply with my rules and requests.

Time out may not be the most effective method of discipline in every case, especially for a child with autism, but I also have to remain cognizant of the standard I’m setting for all of my children. The rules of the house don’t change for Jonah, and he is neither exempt nor excluded from anything we do (no matter how difficult it can be for him at times). It might take a bit longer to implement and we may have to adjust the technique, but the rules for Jonah are the same for Julien as they are for Jace. There are no free passes!

When my beautiful young princes become adults in society, they will neither be exempt nor excused from following the rules of society just because they (two of them) have special needs. They’d be lucky if anyone even bothered to ask them if there are any special circumstances that need to be taken into consideration before a decision is made that may impact their futures. And since I am raising African-American men, this is of huge concern to me — the rules of society are especially strict for these young men. I have to make certain that Jonah and his brothers know without question that rules are there for a reason, and if they aren’t followed, there will be a consequence for their actions, whether they like it or not.

For any parent out there on the verge of a meltdown, it’s okay! Just remember to take a lot of deep breaths and honor the space you’re in. If you’re tired, lay down. If you’re stressed, take your own timeout. If it’s a good day, pat yourself on the back! And most importantly, take it easy on yourself and put the “beat myself up” bat” down. As a matter of fact, it would be best to take it out with the trash!