My son self-harms.
My beautiful, gentle, loving, 7-year-old son self-harms.
And it breaks my heart.
Reading out loud what I’ve written above doesn’t sound right. I never thought I’d be reading the words “self-harm” and “7-year-old son” in the same sentence, let alone writing them. Self-harming conjures up images of severely depressed teenagers, doing it in secret so that no one knows. I can assure you, there’s nothing secret about when Jude decides to self-harm. Everyone within a mile radius knows about it!
But this is part of my son’s life. This is part of how he copes with the overwhelming sensory input the world presents to him. This is part of his autism. Jude was diagnosed with autism when he was just 18 months old. I knew very little about autism at the time. Actually, I knew nothing more than what I had learned watching Rain Man 15 years before. More than five years have passed since Jude’s diagnosis, and autism fills my thoughts every single day.
Jude first began to show signs of self-harming behavior around the age of 2. One minute he’d be perfectly happy, the next he would suddenly begin to cry and drop to his knees. He would then bounce up and down on his knees, over and over, crying more and more. This behavior was worrying, but at the time everything about autism was and we didn’t really know what these episodes meant. Jude is currently nonverbal, so maybe this was just him having a tantrum at not being able to explain what it was he wanted.
As time went on, his behavior became more extreme and lasted for increasing amounts of time. That’s when we discovered the term “meltdown.” A tantrum is when a person has some control over their behavior, and it usually occurs because they want something. The person is looking for a reaction, and the tantrum will typically end if they get what they want.
A meltdown is quite different. It usually occurs due to someone feeling like their senses have become overloaded, causing the person to feel confused and frightened. A meltdown will continue regardless of whether anyone is paying them attention or not. Identifying the trigger can be difficult, and it can take some time for the person to calm down.
So Jude was having meltdowns. We now knew what they were, but we still had no idea why he was experiencing them. There seemed to be no common factor whenever they would occur. It appeared he was having real trouble processing everything that was going on in his world.
After the knee bouncing, it progressed to foot stomping—slamming his heels into the floor, his toes, the side of his foot. Dropping from a standing position wasn’t enough anymore, he would now jump from the sofa or bed to his knees.
Then around two years ago, he began to use his hands. First, it was slapping his arms, legs and feet over and over until they were raw. Then when that wasn’t enough, he turned his attention to slamming his hands against objects instead. In the middle of a meltdown, Jude would seek out a wall, or even a radiator, slamming the back of his hands into them. One day, Jude suddenly began to slap his face and this soon became the main area of his focus. Somehow, this seemed worse than all of his other behaviors. Watching someone slap themselves around the face over and over just doesn’t make sense.
Try it: Slap yourself around the face. Imagine you are slapping someone who has really upset you. Don’t hold back. Now do it 20, 30, times in a row. I bet you can’t.
There’s something that kicks in that will stop you from doing it, or at least stop you from doing it full strength. Jude doesn’t appear to have that filter. Tears will be streaming down his face, yet he won’t stop. He alternates between his face and the side of his head, and now he clenches his fists and punches the side of his face, too.
Two years ago it became really intense and ever more frequent. For a spell of two to three months, he would have meltdowns for up to eight hours a day. It can happen at any time of the day; sometimes he will wake up in the middle of the night, and half asleep he begins slapping himself in the face.
It’s as if there are two boys inside of him. He’s Jekyll and Hyde. He’s Bruce Banner and the Incredible Hulk. When he’s mid-meltdown, he becomes the Hulk, only instead of angrily destroying everything in his wake, the sole focus of his rage is himself. Once he snaps out of it, it’s as if nothing ever happened. A smile returns to his face and he carries on with his day, until the next time.
We have tried everything. We changed his diet and went for medical tests to see if there was anything wrong. We tried to guess the reasons behind each meltdown and tried to prevent them from occurring again. We tried to distract him with his favorite foods, TV programs and activities. We’ve tried occupational therapy, massage and supplements. We tried ignoring him (boy, that’s hard), placing him in a safe environment and leaving him to get on with it.
When this first started and he was in the middle of a meltdown, the only thing that seemed to calm him down was going for a drive and listening to music. I found myself scooping him up off the floor, putting him in the back of the car and driving him around for three to four hours a day—sometimes even at 2 a.m. I’d do anything to help him relax and stop hitting himself.
I’ve got angry with him, I’ve shouted, cried, begged him to stop, restrained him, shaken him, tried to reason with him, and sat and read a book, pretending that I couldn’t hear the sounds of his hands pounding against his face or his knees bouncing off the floor. I’ve tried to make him take it out on me instead. God, how I’ve wished he would hit me instead. Hit me, I can take it. Just please, please, please stop taking out your anger on yourself.
Things have slowly begun to improve over the last year. When it happens now, it’s usually only three or four times a day. On good days, each meltdown may only last a few minutes. On bad days, each one can be up to an hour.
I love Jude more than anything in the world, and I accept that his autism is part of who he is. A nonverbal, beautiful, loving and gentle 7-year-old boy, whose smile lights up my world. I feel like I’ve learned how to handle his self-harming better now. Most of the time, I’m more relaxed when it happens. I’m calm, and I do my best to reduce or remove whatever stresses are overwhelming him at that moment. I know the best way to help him calm down. I’m more in tune with what may cause a sensory overload for him and try to prevent him from being exposed to it as much as I can. Even if he has a meltdown for an hour now, I know that it will end soon and he will be OK.
But, if I’m really honest, every time it happens it still breaks my heart a little bit.