I don’t typically make New Year’s resolutions. Why wait until a new year rolls around when you can make a change right now? That’s my usual logic, although I do occasionally stop and think about things I’d like to change when the calendar flips over to a new year.
One change that I decided to make at the beginning of last year was to try to reduce the amount of plastic our family consumes. This is an ongoing challenge because just about everything available for purchase at our local grocery stores comes in some sort of plastic container or wrapping.
We do recycle as much as possible, but learning the dismal amount of how much plastic actually gets recycled (only about 9%!) inspired me to try to reduce our plastic consumption in addition to recycling.
I was excited to find that some brands still sell milk in paper cartons rather than plastic jugs. Remember the milk cartons at school lunch? This was perfect, I thought! Our family of five goes through a lot of milk. It’s slightly more expensive to buy milk in half-gallon cartons than gallon plastic jugs, but I thought it would be worth it to do my part in helping the planet.
It turns out that not everyone in the house was as excited about my solution as I was. Well, really just one person was less than thrilled that I was no longer buying the same kind of milk as before – my 12-year-old son was not a fan.
In case you’re not aware, he is also on the autism spectrum. In fact, it was because of his diagnosis that my own was also discovered. He displays a lot more classic symptoms of autism than I do. In this case, strict adherence to routines and distress when those routines become disrupted would be on full display.
So what’s the big deal? It’s just a different kind of milk! To most people, that’s true – it is just milk. But to someone on the spectrum, it’s so much more than that. People on the spectrum rely on certain routines and things remaining the same because the certainty and familiarity helps them find calm and comfort in a world that is anything but calm and comfortable for them. When things change and their routines are disrupted, autistic people can experience significant distress and lose control of their emotions.
The first morning with the new milk was a school morning. Like every morning, I dumped his favorite cereal into a red bowl – he won’t eat out of a yellow bowl – and poured this similar yet unfamiliar white substance on top.
After one bite, he looked at me, perplexed, and asked, “What’s this?”
“Your cereal,” I responded.
“No, it’s not. This milk tastes funny.”
“I’m trying something new. Instead of buying the milk we usually drink, I got a different kind that comes in cartons so that we don’t use as much plastic. It’s better for the environment!”
I knew it was possible that he wouldn’t react well to this change, but I still held out hope that that wouldn’t happen. Sometimes he surprises me by tolerating change better than I would expect. But not this time. This time he had a meltdown.
Those who are unfamiliar with autistic meltdowns are likely to assume that someone experiencing one is just having a temper tantrum. In fact, for many years before we discovered his autism, we naively assumed that it was misbehavior on his part and that, like most children, he would eventually grow out of it. When his episodes became worse instead of better as he grew older, it started to become clear to us that there was something much more serious going on.
I’ve never taken a video of one of my son’s meltdowns for a few reasons. First of all, there’s so much chaos going on that there’s no time to grab a phone and start recording. Secondly, my instinct is to help him calm down, not document it. He responds well to pressure, so I try to wrap my arms around him and gently squeeze. It’s difficult to do that and record at the same time. And, most importantly, he can’t give his consent to being recorded and I don’t want him to feel like he’s some kind of side-show attraction.
In lieu of having any visual evidence of an episode, the easiest way to describe it in words is that he becomes visibly upset – he will grab his head with his hands, make wild gestures with his arms, and pace erratically. He will also make guttural noises in the back of his throat, clearly evident of distress. Sometimes he will throw or hit nearby inanimate objects. He has never become physically aggressive with us and has no intention of hurting anyone.
Here’s a video someone else made of a typical meltdown that he experiences. Please be aware, though, that a meltdown can be displayed in many different ways – biting, hitting, banging one’s head against a wall, walking in circles, flapping hands, crying out, heavy breathing, etc. Below is just one example of what a meltdown might look like.
What would you assume if you saw someone behaving in this manner and you didn’t know the person was autistic? Spoiled brat or bad behavior if it were a child? Maybe a mental disorder if it were a teenager or adult?
Before I knew what an autistic meltdown was and why it occurs, I said things to my son and reacted in ways that I’m not proud of. “Why can’t you behave?” “You’re too old to act like this!” I reacted in frustration and punished him because I didn’t know any better. I assumed he was intentionally giving me a hard time when, in reality, he was having a hard time. He needed me to be there for him while he suffered through these episodes, not to chastise him for something he can’t control. It did neither of us any good whatsoever for me to be punitive, admonishing, or judgmental.
One of the best things to happen as the result of his diagnosis is that I handle his meltdowns so much better. Now that I know why these episodes occur and that he’s not misbehaving, I react in a much calmer manner myself. He calms down more quickly when I respond to him in a calm manner.
On that fateful morning, instead of getting angry at him or accusing him of trying to avoid going to school because I simply changed the type of milk we drink, I told him that I would buy him some yogurt that he likes and deliver it to him at school for his breakfast. He was able to calm down and voluntarily go to school, albeit a little late. I called his special education teacher and explained the situation, which she understood completely
So instead of a slight increase in the amount we pay for a different kind of milk, in the world of autism, the abstract cost of this simple switch is much higher. The price we pay at the cash register doesn’t include the cost of the emotional turmoil inflicted on everyone involved. I always have to weigh the options and consider if making a change is worth the inconvenience it might cause. And yet, now that we know and understand more about autism, the cost isn’t as great as it would be if we had no understanding of the situation.
My son still won’t drink the new milk, and that’s OK. Now he likes toast in the mornings instead.