He was screaming. Covering his ears, full on shriek, in the middle of the living room floor. It was at that moment that I knew to prepare for the Hulk Smash. Any heavy toys had to be moved out of reach, FAST.
Sometimes, I feel like I’m raising two separate children. My son in meltdown mode, like he was, hands over his ears, poised to start throwing things, and my son out of meltdown mode.
My son out of meltdown mode is… easily the most delightful human being in the world. He’s funny. He strolls in casually from the backyard, coated head-to-toe in mud, and says “Hey, babe. I need a shower.” He gives extra cuddles as we read books at night. He sorts colorful plastic bears into patterns and asks me to think about how to continue the pattern. He’s bright, and he cracks me up.
My son in meltdown mode, well… it’s something not everyone can handle being around. He’s even torn a shirt or two in his transformation into meltdown mode… Hulk mode, really. He has no concept of the fact that he’s hitting so hard, biting or scratching, throwing things… for him, he’s defending himself. Sometimes, it’s from an invisible threat.
So why the meltdown today? I said I was going to take him to McDonald’s. See, last time we were at McDonald’s, a kid smacked him… hard. Multiple times. It was bad enough that I had to call on the manager to get involved because I couldn’t physically hold my son away from this child who was attacking him. I had forgotten the incident, which happened months ago… but he had not.
My son, with his Autism Spectrum Disorder, remembers everything… but he can’t always communicate those feelings or memories well. For him, he associated McDonalds with pain and with danger, and he didn’t want to go. Instead of telling me that verbally or with the signs we had been working so hard at, he stood there, and screamed.
He started… well, it can only be described as “picking.” He’d go poke someone until they were frustrated. He’d smack them and yell. And finally, it peaked at him screaming in the middle of the room. Every person in the house took their turn at trying to ease his frustration, calm him down, and get him to verbalize why he was feeling like he needed to melt down.
And every person walked away with scratches, or bite marks, or having been hit. You see, when Zack is melting down, he doesn’t know his own strength. For him, the situation is dire. It’s not just about McDonalds anymore. It’s about anything that’s been stressing him out the past few days.
A meltdown is the only release– the only escape from how he’s feeling. Everything has piled onto him to the point that he can’t handle it. Lashing out is sometimes the only way he can hold on, because he’s so overwhelmed.
This time, the person who cracked through the shell was his Uncle. You see, Zack had been melting down for almost an hour, he was wearing himself out, and his uncle managed to get him quiet and calm. It’s not always his uncle that ends the meltdown, but it’s always someone. Sometimes we have to tag team, or sometimes it’s a smaller burst that someone can handle solo. But it’s always exhausting– for him, for us, for everyone involved.
After the meltdown, he becomes a puddle of tears. He worries that he’s a bad guy after he sees the scratches or broken toys or trail that his meltdown resulted in… but as always, we reassure him through speech and through sign that he is GOOD, and that we LOVE him… and we go on.
Right now, we’re at McDonald’s. All it took was some reassurance that the child who was there before would likely not be there today, that we could go to a different McDonalds if he was truly afraid the child would be back, and that I would protect him and if anyone touched him, we would leave immediately to keep him safe. Once he had those assurances, he was ready to go.
Unfortunately, I didn’t know that until after the meltdown.
But how does it relate to the Hulk? Well, in a few ways.
For one, Bruce Banner and the Hulk are like two totally different people. Bruce Banner is beyond intelligent– hyper-intelligent, really. He’s fairly well-spoken, and if you didn’t know, you probably wouldn’t peg him as being the Hulk. The Hulk, on the other hand, doesn’t communicate much with speech– usually, you hear grunts and groans as he smacks down his opponents. Outside of his catchprahse– Hulk Smash– he doesn’t say much at all. He smashes, without a ton of regard for what he’s smashing… there’s just no shred of Bruce seeming to still be in him.
But inevitably, when he does return to being Bruce… he’s Bruce again. You don’t see a whole lot of the Hulk there.
You see, my son is an amazing, bright, funny child. But you wouldn’t like him when he’s angry.
…and that’s okay. We love him through it. We take him to therapy to give him ways to cope with his anger and hopefully better verbalize why he’s upset, before he starts to smash. We give him plenty of hugs and cuddles after. We remind him that he’s good and that he’s loved.
Raising a child with Autism Spectrum Disorder is a little bit like raising two different kids– a compassionate, loving one, and a very frustrated angry one… and at times, that’s as challenging for you as the parent as it is for them as the child. But you’re going to get through it. He will be back to his Bruce Banner self someday. The meltdown won’t last forever. Ride out the Hulk Smash moments and you’ll snuggle through after.
It’s going to be okay.