I have a 20-year-old son with Asperger’s syndrome. He has just started the workforce and tried college but failed all of his classes. He was recently laid off from his employment and is now on unemployment. He lives in his own apartment and pays his own bills. The problem I’m having is he has meltdowns almost on a daily basis and sometimes several times a day. He vents to me by texting and constantly repeats the same thing over and over, using profanity as well. How do I help him deal with these meltdowns at his age? I have people telling me it’s misbehavior on his part and he can control it, but I’m wondering how can he control it? I feel like I’m in between a rock and a hard place. Any suggestions?
I partially agree with what others are telling you… he can control his behavior. But everyone’s behavior is shaped by their environment and he may not have the tools he needs to cope in any way other than melting down.
The best thing to do would be to help him strategize ways to cope when he is CALM and not upset. This could be at the start of his day, perhaps. You may say something like “OK, so I know yesterday you got very upset when ____ happened and you lost your temper. Today, when something upsets you, what else could you do?” This is going to be an on-going conversation, not just a one-time deal.
Depending on his level of understanding you can even talk with him about the consequences of his meltdowns, or potential consequences. For example: if he ever used profanity towards a police officer he could be in a lot of trouble. So he’s got to find better ways to express himself.
Help him do these two things:
- Identify triggers and his feelings. Teach him to notice how his body feels when he FIRST starts to get upset. Maybe his heart beats faster or harder, maybe he starts feeling hot, maybe his hands clench…whatever it is, help him to become more aware of his body and his emotions. Tie his bodily reactions to his emotions. “OK, so you start to feel hot and your heart beats fast… then you feel angry.” Or the other way around, “You feel really overwhelmed and then you feel your hands get sweaty and your stomach starts to hurt.”
- Identify ways to calm down and manage those feelings and reactions. Here’s a list of coping strategies he can try. Some may be more appealing to him than others. Encourage him to try them out and see what helps.
- Taking slow deep breaths. BIG inhale in through the nose, slow exhale out through the mouth
- Counting slowly, out loud (can be in a whisper or silently if he’s in public)
- Taking a walk
- Writing / journaling
- Laying down for a few minutes
- Listening to a favorite song
- Running his hands under cold water or splashing cold water on his face
- Squeezing or hitting a pillow
- Tensing various muscles then letting go (face, shoulders, hands, arms, legs, etc)
You can also walk him through his options when he is facing a challenge or stressor. This is a tool from Melissa L. Rinaldi, Ph.D at Center for Autism and Related Disabilities, University at Albany.
Lastly, you may need to change YOUR behavior to help him change his. If he has become accustomed to texting you every time he’s upset and getting to unload all sorts of profanity and outrage on you, you’ll have to be the one to change that pattern. Do not engage repetitive conversations. You can tell him he is dwelling or perseverating and remind him you already talked about that. You can even tell him you want to talk about it with him but first he needs to go use a coping strategy (i.e. “OK, I can see you’re really mad about this. Go take a walk around the block and then text me”). Also, you may need to limit or delay your responses to his text messages. Prompt him to think of solutions to the problem he’s facing. And if it’s a situation where there really isn’t a great solution, have him focus on how he can feel better (i.e. coping strategies). We want to help him find better ways to manage his feelings and bodily reactions, so even when there isn’t a way to fix the problem he’s facing, he can still work on his own emotions.
I hope this helps. Hang in there! And if he needs a more intensive approach to help him build these skills I really encourage you to pursue ABA services for him.
Angelina works as a Board Certified Behavior Analyst, specializing in assessing and treating children and adolescents with autism, down-syndrome, and other developmental delays. She began her career in Applied Behavior Analysis in 2006, following her youngest brother’s autism diagnosis, and has since worked with dozens of children and families. She also writes a blog about her experiences as both a professional and a big sister. Her brother, Dylan, remains her most powerful inspiration for helping others who face similar challenges.
This article was featured in Issue 48 – Connecting and Communicating with Autism