1.   How do we deal with meltdowns?

Although this must be one of the most frequently asked questions, the answer isn’t all that straight-forward.  It can be rather complex.

A meltdown is an Asperger child’s (and sometimes an adult’s) way of expressing his inability to communicate his exteme displeasure with a set of circumstances that he perceives are beyond his control and is therefore unable to change.

Firstly though, it might be useful to distinguish between a sensory meltdown and a behaviour meltdown as the strategies to resolve them can be quite different.

For example, Johnnie arrives at school to find he has a relief teacher for the day and to top it all, his desk has been moved.  These unscheduled changes that he wasn’t pre-warned about, might cause a behaviour meltdown due to heightened anxiety.  The solution to this situation might include showing Johnnie a visual that his teacher is away and then moving his desk back into place.  It is important for his regular teacher to understand Johnnie’s condition so she knows she needs to manage him differently and advise him about impending changes to his routine.

The second situation is where Johnnie arrives at school quite happy, but on entering the classroom he finds a rowdy group of kids playing really loud music that he finds painful to his hearing system.  He covers his ears, screams and runs out of the room.  This is a sensory meltdown.  As a parent you would have learnt what sensory sensitivities your child is likely to have.  This could be any one or more of the five senses and most often sensitivities involve more than just one sense, making it sometimes difficult to pinpoint which one actually triggered the meltdown.  The strategy would be to establish what your child is sensitive to and arrange to remove these triggers from his environment at all times.

As difficult as it might be, try not to interfere once a meltdown has started.  Let it run its course and only intervene after the child has calmed down.  Intervention should only be considered if the child is likely to cause physical harm either to himself or others or if there is likely to be damage to property.  Interfering will otherwise just add fuel to the fire, because his already overloaded sensory system simply cannot cope with more input.

It might sound counter-intuitive, but stop yourself from reprimanding the child during or after the meltdown.  Discuss it in a calm and understanding manner if you like and try not to scold him because this isn’t a spoilt brat temper tantrum from a child who can’t get his way – he genuinely can’t help it.  Reprimanding the child is more likely to result in a breakdown in the trust relationship between you and your child.  He needs to know that he can always confide in you, otherwise you’re less likely to find out what the real cause of the neltdown was.  Without pinpointing the cause, you’re going to have difficulty knowing what you need to do to help.  Strange as it may seem, the child is just as keen as you to put an end to his meltdowns, but he simply doesn’t know how to.  He needs your help, not a tongue-lashing.

General tips in managing meltdowns:

Identify events that trigger meltdowns and prevent these triggers from escalting into an explosion by removing the child from the cause or the cause from the child.

A strong and positive relationship between you and your child’s teacher is imperative.  Even if there are no meltdowns at school, many children bottle up triggers in class, only to explode when they get home.  An understanding and accommodating teacher can help to prevent this by eliminating sensory triggers in the classroom environment and adapting her style of teaching according to the child’s needs.

Work on improving the child’s communication skills so he is better able to express himself. Once he is able to express himself sufficiently, you’ll know what’s required to assist him meet his needs.  Aspergers learn by intellect, not intuition.  This means they need to be taught things that others pick up intuitively, including the need to communicate their dissatisfaction and frustration with their environment.  Many Asperger children who are quite verbal might experience a limited depth of vocabulary, while others simply don’t understand the meaning of words they can read quite fluently.  These children need one-on-one help.

Create a physical environment to help learning, reduce distraction and avoid confusion.

Most Aspergers have some form of gut abnormality, the most common being either constipation or excessive wind.  Although this added discomfort is unlikely to cause a meltdown, it most certainly can aggravate it.  Have it checked out and seek professional advice on how to help the child overcome these problems.  A fully functional digestive system equals a happier and healthier child with fewer and less violent meltdowns.

There is lots of reading material on the subject of Asperger meldowns.  Here are two suggested books that may help:

No More Meltdowns by Jed Baker.

Freedom from Meltdowns by Travis Thompson.

2.  Where do I get a formal diagnosis for my child?

If you have reason to suspect your child may have Asperger’s syndrome, consult your G.P. who will refer the child to the nearest government assessment centre.  The assessment consists of an examination and a number of tests, normally conducted by a psychologist and a paeditrician.  The problem with this procedure is that the waiting list is horrendously long and for this reason many parents prefer to consult a private practitioner, even though this means having to pay a fee.
If you choose to go privately, you are strongly advised to consult a practitioner with experience in diagnosing ASD to avoid coming away empty-handed.  In the Wellington region, the ADD Trust in Island Bay is recommended for a diagnosis at a reasonable fee.

Whatever you decide to do, don’t delay seeking a diagnosis. All the experts agree that the earlier one begins remedial interventions, the higher the child’s chances are of growing up to be a high functioning adult.
If you think your child may have an ASD, start drawing up a list of all the relevant traits you can recall from the day he was born. Do this whilst waiting for his appointment date to arrive because the more information you can provide the practitioner, the better your chances of your child not receiving a diagnosis or worse, being misdiagnosed.

3.  Where do I get a diagnosis for myself (or another adult member of the family)?

Adults requiring a formal diagnosis will need to consult a psychologist or psychiatrist for an assessment as government centres do not cater for adults. Consult your nearest ASD support group for names of practitioners willing to diagnose adults and try to see someone experienced in diagnosing autistic spectrum disorders. In Wellington, the Add Trust at Island Bay will diagnose adults too.

4.  Is there a genetic link?

Generally there is a connection between a child with Asperger’s syndrome and one or both of his parents’ family trees.  This doesn’t necessarily mean one of the child’s parents will automatically be on the spectrum though.  Quite often, one will find a grandparent, an uncle, a cousin or some other member of the family with traits one can ascribe to an autistic spectrum disorder.

5.  Is there any medication one can take and does it help?

There is no medication to prevent or eliminate an ASD. However, there is medication that may help ameliorate some of the symptoms and/or negative behavioural traits associated with autistic spectrum disorders, for example, medication for depression.  The child’s paediatrician will be able to advise on this matter.

There is evidence from several research organisations that interventions without the use of prescription drugs, such as supplementing the child’s diet with cod liver oil, for example, has helped improve the child’s cognitive ability and reduce unwanted behaviour.   Several people report improvements with dietary adjustments, for example, the gluten free/casein free diet that helps some, but not all children with an ASD.  Research what you’re doing and seek professional advice before embarking on any dietary interventions.

Every treatment for autism has its detractor and none has proven to benefit every case.  If the professional to whom you take your child strongly recommends some program or treatment, know that there are others who will recommend some other method just as strongly.  Many programs are made up from parts of several methods.  This is understandable given that no two children on the spectrum are identical in their character traits.

6.  Will Cloud 9 be running social skills courses again?

The Foundation has facilitated formal social skills courses for several years.  Our social skills courses are held in high regard with some teachers having remarked on positive changes they’ve noticed.  Future courses depend on the availability of funding.  Parents may enquire from the Foundation about when our next course will be held.

7.  How can I prevent my child from being bullied?

Firstly, it might be useful to recognise what bullying really is.  Bullying can come in several forms and is not always physical.  And it’s not always carried out by other children.  Adults can be bullies too.   Bullying is a form of put-down, most often perpetrated by people who feel insecure or have low self esteem of their own.

If your child is a victim of bullying, it’s most likely this is happening at school or on the way to and from school.  If you suspect your child might be the subject of bullying, but he’s not saying anything, this is most likely because he feels that telling you won’t put an end to it and in fact might make things worse when the bully finds out he told someone.  For this reason it’s important that your child knows from the beginning that you will not tolerate bullying, that if it occurs you are prepared to follow it through with school support to ensure it comes to an end and he can always feel relaxed about opening up to you.

Although each case is different, there are some general guidelines your child needs to be armed with.  He needs to always say NO to bullying and needs to present a confident body language when approached by bullies.  He needs to know that he should walk away from a developing situation (or run if he has to).  He needs to protect himself from further bullying by immediately getting help from someone he trusts.  If they don’t help, try someone else.  As difficult as it might seem, always try to be brave and if physically possible stand your ground – bullies are cowards and often  back down when confronted.

Explore your child’s school policy on bullying.  You’ll quickly get a feel as to whether it’s real or whether it’s just a policy, seldom implemented.  Word-of-mouth feedback from other parents would be a good guide as to whether you should send your child to that particular school or look elsewhere.

8.  What can I do to help my son/daughter make and keep friends?

To most children, making friends comes naturally.  They pick up social cues very quickly and develop a sense about who they would like to be friends with.  Unlike others, ASD children lack intuitive understanding of others, often resulting in hurtful rebuffs.  Parents need to understand that their ASD children learn through intellect, not intuition.  This means they need to be taught literally everything!  ASD children battle to read facial expressions and body language, but this can be taught with the help of books, the Internet, CD Roms etc.

Once the foundations have been laid, the parent, not the child, needs to go about finding a suitable friend for their child to connect with.  Ask the child’s teacher for guidance and arrange a get-together, preferably at your home, not the other kid’s place.  And before they get together, run through everything your child needs to remember to do throughout the time period alloted.  Don’t assume the child will intuitively know what to do – they might not and the opportunity could be ruined, nerver to be repeated.

9. How can I help my child manage Anxiety

It would probably be true to say that every child diagnosed with Asperger’s or autism spectrum disorder has some type of anxiety disorder.

There are as many techniques to help overcome debilitating anxiety as there are diagnoses, including the use of presciption drugs and hynotherapy.  Deciding what therapy would best suit your child depends very much on the child as each one is an individual.

For more comprehensive advice on dealing with anxiety in children, we suggest going to the heading “Anxiety” on the page “Asperger’s Syndrome Information.

10. How can playing a game like Minecraft help my ASD child?

There is evidence that playing Minecraft off-line through a LAN has helped all the children who attend our sessions to improve their communication skills.  The other benefit is that they learn the importance of complying with rules and have developed a sense of responsibility they would not have otherwise received.  If nothing else, then playing in a group rather than alone at home, allows children who usually battle to socialise normally, to become fully sociable while having a lot of fun.