Why Some Kids On The Autism Spectrum Have Meltdowns After School

by Vicki Swan for The Mighty
Originally Published: 
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Tonight I helped a local group with some autism awareness training. I think it went well. I used the “Coke can” explanation to describe a day at school for Sam. Sam is fictional, he is a 10-year-old little boy, he has red curly hair and a cheeky smile. He is a combination of my own school experiences and those of my children.

The Coke can analogy was first described to me by another parent of a child on the autism spectrum; it has stuck with me, the perfect way to explain the way a child bottles up everything and then lets it all go once getting out of school.

I have seen other people write about it, and this is my interpretation as an autistic adult myself and a parent of kids on the autism spectrum:

The Coke can example.

“Come on Sam, time to get up.”

The light streaming in the curtains burns Sams eyes, blinding him.

Sam gets up. Immediately the pressures of everyday life are upon him: get washed and dressed, brush teeth, go downstairs, join the rest of the family.

“Morning, Sam.”

Clothes are scratchy and uncomfortable; they are not comfy clothes Sam would choose. They seem to dig in, or don’t sit right, labels rub and feel different to the rest of clothing, they become an annoying distraction for Sam. Sam tries to eat breakfast but all he can think of is those seams and labels.

Now shake the can!

Sam now needs to find and put on his shoes and coat. Shoes are heavy, they squeeze and pinch, feeling tight over Sam’s feet.

Coats are restrictive, bulky and annoying!

Now Sam needs to leave the house.

Shake the can!

Sam gets in the car. The car is cold, the seats are hard, the car has a funny smell. The seatbelt digs in and restricts movement, it feels suffocating.

Sam arrives at school, he gets out the car, there are other cars, children and their parents everywhere.

Shake, shake, shake the can some more!

So much to see, where should Sam look?

So much noise, did someone say Sam?

Where is that noise coming from?

Sam trips and falls on the steps.

Sam gets up. He feels like running away.

Shake the can some more!

The noise is the ringing bell, Sam covers his ears and drops to the ground slamming his head off the ground! I help Sam up, I hug Sam “It’s OK, you are OK.” Sam is now late for school.

Shake the can!

Sam enters his classroom last, 25 noisy children each with their own unique faces, sounds and smells. Sam’s senses are totally overwhelmed, he covers his ears, shuts his eyes and slams his head off the nearest desk.

A voice is shouting, “Sam, Sam, sit down Sam. Come on now everyone, into your seats. Sam sit down.” All Sam hears is his name. He focuses hard but misses the instructions, he sees the other children sitting down and copies.

Shake the can harder!

Chairs are dragging on the floor, like fingernails down a blackboard, the lights are too bright, the classroom is covered in posters and art work made by children, pencils on paper make a noise only Sam can hear, it is a busy environment full of distractions. All Sam’s senses are overwhelmed. Sam’s eyes and head hurt. Sam wants to run away.

Sam again hits his head off the desk.

Shake the can again!

Sam tries to do his work. Sam doesn’t understand what he is meant to be doing, he couldn’t process all the instructions quickly enough. Sam can’t ask for help, he can’t communicate his difficulties. Although Sam is verbal, it is too overwhelming to speak in class.

Sam rolls his pencil along the table, mesmerized by the way the light dances along its straight edges. Watching the light dance is soothing for Sam, he gets up and walks around, walking is soothing, too. Sam gets in trouble for distracting the other children, he is told to return to his seat.

Shake, shake, shake!

Break time! Sam is alone, the other children won’t include him. Over 100 children in the playground but Sam feels so lonely, he longs for company. Again Sam is hit with sensory overload caused by the noisy playground environment. Sam covers his ears, falls down, and hammers his head off the ground.

“Go play, Sam”

“Play? How do I play? What with? There are no toys!” are the thoughts racing through Sam’s mind.

Sam doesn’t know how to play, he struggles with imagination. Play with who? Sam has no friends.

Sam runs up and down, knocking into other children, “ Go away, Sam!” “You’re in the way Sam.”

The smell and noise in the dining room at lunchtime causes Sam to retch. He falls to the ground, hands on ears, eyes screwed tightly shut, slamming his head off the floor, his senses overwhelmed again. Sam barely eats any lunch.

Shake, shake, shake harder.

“Do your worksheet, Sam!”

Gym time. Sam is last to change, it is hard for Sam to change clothes, he is all fingers and thumbs, his P.E. clothes feel different, different materials. More labels. Light shoes that feel wrong.

At P.E., no one wants Sam on their team, Sam can’t hit the ball with the bat, he gets struck out, he sits alone at the side punching his chin.

Sam changes back into his school clothes, again everything feels wrong.

Shake harder, shake harder!

“Come on Sam, everyone else has finished that worksheet!” Sam flaps his arms and stamps his feet. Sam is struggling to “hide” his autism.

Sam wants to run away, he feels sweaty, his heart is thundering in his chest, the classroom is too hot, too loud, too bright, just all too much! Sam sits repeatedly banging his head off his desk.

Sam doesn’t understand. Sam needs to move, to fidget. Sam chews his fingers, the bones in his fingers are deformed from repetitive chewing.

Shake, shake, shake!

Assembly, “Sit down, Sam!”

Sam just can’t sit still, Sam just can’t keep quiet. Too many people, everywhere, it is all too much!

Smash, smash, smash! Sam is smashing his head off the tiled floor.

Sam starts making noises, squealing, howling, feet stamping, arms flapping.

Children whisper.

Teachers talking.

It is all too much, more head smashing.

Sam is crying.

“Sam, back to the classroom.” Sam stands up, he doesn’t understand why he has to leave and is guided back to the classroom. Everyone is staring, pointing, whispering: “Weirdo, freak, crybaby.”

Sam understands every single stinging insult. The tears fall faster.

Keep shaking that can!

“Sam, get your coat and bag.”

Sam can’t find his coat, and what else was he to find? ….

Sam gets knocked into, jostled, pushed out of the way.

Sam returns with his coat. “Sam, where is your bag?”

Sam goes back into the cloakroom, more pushing and shoving to find his bag. Sam’s bag is not on its peg, someone has moved it. Sam is panicking. Finally he finds his bag, hidden out of sight over by the door.

Shake, shake shake!

Home time!

Sam negotiates his way along a packed corridor, swept along by a sea of moving children. He fights his way through the door outside into the playground to be met by the faces of hundreds of parents waiting to collect their kids.

Sam spots me.

“How was your day, Sam?”

Would you like to open that can now?

The Coke can effect describes the child who bottled everything up for as long as they could.

This was my own experience of school and the experience of two of my children.

Sometimes, I didn’t last until the end of the day. I had a reputation for throwing classroom furniture out of the way while I made my escape. One of my children who doesn’t know of my behavior in school reacts in exactly the same way.

It is a fight-or-flight reaction — I just had to get out and anything in my path would be met with destruction.

For a child like Sam, you need to find a way to release the fizz slowly.

At school pick up, I minimize communication with the children, welcoming them with a smile, a hug and a high five.

Remember how hard Sam’s day was?

My child, like Sam, bounces on a trampoline for up to an hour most days. My other child goes for a run. They have to get it out their system, just like I did. These days, I use loud music and long walks when the need to let off steam arises.

If the Coke can explodes before you can gently release the pressure, you have to let the tears run their course. It may be a few minutes, or it may take hours. The priority is keeping this child safe until the storm passes. Talking won’t work; they can’t hear you during a meltdown. Touching can be risky and lead to more lashing out. All you can do is wait it out, be patient, be understanding.

Once the child is calming down, use gentle reassurance, short sentences.

Never punish a meltdown. The child has no control.

Now move on, be positive and kind. The last thing any child wants is for you to drag up all the triggers and trauma that added up over the day. School is done for the day, leave it there.

Sam and others like him will have to summon up the strength to do it all again tomorrow.

Originally published on The Mighty.

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