Honestly, last month was challenging. There were a number of things going on that disrupted our normal routine. I thought I was doing a pretty good job of preparing Liam for changes and disruptions. We’ve been doing this for awhile now. But, well, I was wrong. I got thrown a curve ball that I wasn’t expecting and it rocked my world a little bit.
I got the call I hadn’t gotten from anyone in three years. “Liam is really upset, he is yelling at staff and trying to hit them.” My heart sank. What on earth had happened? The person on on the phone gave me the number of a staff member who was with him. They were off-campus at an athletic event that day. I called to try to figure out what was going on. The staff person told me “he just got all upset out of nowhere. We have no idea what happened.” As a former Special Education teacher for almost a decade, I had a hard time believing this. It is very unusual for a person to have a meltdown without something that triggered them.
So, I patiently start asking questions. Did he take his medicine on time? Was anyone yelling or upset around him? Did they tell him the schedule for the day? What was going on right before they noticed him being upset? What was the first thing he did that alerted them something was not right? Has been able to self-regulate and calm down? What is he doing now?
In gathering information I found out that the athletic event had been really loud in the gym, although they said Liam seemed fine there. Then I found out they were eating lunch an hour-and-half later than usual. At a park. With birds swooping in to try to eat people’s food. Liam had told staff he didn’t like birds, so they said “sit over here” near a staff person. Some conversation was going on and all of a sudden Liam blurted out something about not liking someone and they tried to correct him and tell him that wasn’t nice. He started using his “bad words” (shut-up and I hate you) and then he lunged at a staff person who held their ground and he was able to stop himself from physically hitting them. I told them I’d come to the park as they were concerned he was not fully calm.
When I got there, I could tell he was shaken up. I greeted him warmly and told him he could go cool down in the car (it was hot outside) while I just chatted with the staff. I let staff know I would speak with him, but now was not the time as he seemed to be in his survival brain. They agreed that was best. I got in the car and asked Liam if he wanted something else to eat or drink. He said yes, so we went to do that. Later that day, we were due to take a five-hour drive to his Dad’s house for a weekend visit.
After eating, I told Liam we’d need to talk about the park but we could do it today while we were on our drive or Sunday when we got home. I was nervous about this because he doesn’t like to talk about or relive these negative moments. He often just shuts down. But I knew I had to try. He said, “talk tomorrow.” I told him we couldn’t do that because he’d be with his Dad, but we could do it Sunday. He said “no, talk today.” I was kind of shocked. This was more than he’d been willing to do in the past.
I waited until we’d been on the road a couple of hours and I felt he was relaxed. I asked if we could talk and he said yes. Come to find out, he was really scared of the birds, didn’t feel safe and he didn’t like his lunch items. We talked about using our words and strategies to stay calm and keep everyone safe. We talked about telling the staff again if he still doesn’t feel safe (he had actually told the staff he was scared). He gave suggestions for strategies. He agreed everyone needs to stay safe. I told him how proud I was that he talked about what happened and stayed calm.
What did I gather from all my “intel?” That too many things happened all on one day which caused Liam to be on overload and go into his survival brain mode. If only a couple things had happened, probably not a big deal. He has matured so much over the last 5 years. But all these things added together had him spiraling.
Excitement for an upcoming weekend trip, overstimulation at a fun event, eating much later than usual, having a lunch he didn’t prefer, not realizing they were going to eat at a park until they got there, seeing all the birds swooping in and being afraid, asking for help but not really “heard” or understood, corrected in a moment he was already spiraling downward.
What did I learn? Liam is usually really resilient and with preparation can maneuver schedule changes, but I never know what he is going to encounter when he is not with me. I need to be sure that I pay attention to how many “known” things are going on and then plan for additional unknown things to happen. I need to help him prepare for success as much as possible. I need to communicate with staff working with him and remind them of possible triggers when they are doing things outside their regular schedule. I need to remind them he is very scared of birds (they are unpredictable) and that we agreed to a Plan B for eating if they are going to a park for lunch.
I also learned that Liam is growing and maturing. I learned that he can have a tough conversation if we approach it slowly and gently. I learned that he was able to advocate for himself with his words, even though staff didn’t fully “get” what he was saying (bothered vs. terrified). I learned that in his most challenging moment, he was able to stop himself from getting physical with himself or someone else.
Gain through the pain. An opportunity to learn and grow together. A gift of insight I didn’t have before. A long-term win from a short-term disaster. Pushing past the limits to a new level of ability.
Next time you are facing something you believe is a “disaster” with your child, I encourage you to stop and name all the upsides you can think of that you can gain long-term from the short-term pain.