July 22, 2019

I often come across stories of a stranger who went out of their way to help an autistic child make it through a meltdown. The parent posts the heroic and heartwarming tale on social media, and it goes viral.

But these stories frustrate me, because they usually miss why the child was having a meltdown in the first place.

This morning, I read about a child who couldn’t sit still on a train. His mom tried to bribe him with candy and force him to sit, but his natural pent-up energy – probably combined with the sugar – exploded under the weight of that demand. The mom was very grateful when a police officer stepped in to distract her son from his distress, by showing off his gear and striking up a conversation.

When an autistic child has a public meltdown, it means they do not have the strength to handle either their environment, the actions being asked of them, or both.

When someone steps in to save the day, I notice that it’s usually by engaging the child with their special interest, helping them get to a calm place, or joining in their actions to reassure them that it’s okay to feel that way.

These are good ways to handle a meltdown. But it’s even better to recognize why they happen in the first place.

P.S. I write from my personal experience as an autistic. What I share is not a substitute for advice from an autistic medical professional. Also, some of my opinions have changed since I first wrote them.