Tag Archives: meltdowns

Sensory Assaults

My friend Bridget wasn’t feeling great.  She felt off-balance and couldn’t walk and it was making it difficult for her to talk.  And then she told me the carpeting made her dizzy.  I hadn’t noticed the carpeting, but when she said this to me, I realized the pattern of the carpet was like an op-art nightmare, in sharp contrasting hues, the repetitive pattern was eye-catching and I suddenly wondered how I could have blocked it out.  But, you see, I had.  The carpet wasn’t a problem until she mentioned it and then I couldn’t not see it.  In addition, there was a plexiglass barrier that gave the sensation of being in an infinity pool, without any of the relaxation involved.  It was as though the carpeting spilled over the edge and disappeared into an abyss.  It was disconcerting and even frightening.

I held out the crook of my arm, the way a blind man in New York City taught me to do, years ago.  A stranger, he’d asked if I could help him cross a busy intersection.  At the time I was carrying my son in a Kelty pack on my back and had my then infant daughter in a snuggly.  When I offered my hand to the man, he told me it was easier for him if I crooked my arm and he then held that, it was more stable, but also gave him the ability to control his own movement more.  Bridget took my arm and we were able to make our way to the elevators without mishap.

It was like pain, you don’t realize how awful it is until it’s gone, and then you’re filled with indescribable relief that makes you hyper aware and surprised by just how bad the pain had been.  Afterwards you wonder how you managed it.  Realizations are like that.  Once you have them they’re impossible to undo or un-think or un-feel.  This is how it is with autism too.

A few months ago I was waiting for the cashier to ring up my groceries.  Suddenly a load bang sounded.  Without meaning to I jumped and turned toward the sound.  It was another cashier smacking a paper bag open.  She was smiling and the cashier next to her did the same thing.  Other cashiers began to laugh and followed by banging their bags open.  I was furious.  The noise felt intolerable.  I wondered what I might say to make them stop.  I went through various scenarios in my mind, from yelling obscenities, to self-righteous indignation, to calling the manager.  And then they stopped.  The deafening sound that felt like a physical assault ended and I realized I’d been holding my breath.

As I walked home with my groceries I thought about how angry I’d gotten and how my body froze and then I thought about how awful it would be if I was assaulted, bombarded with intolerable sounds all the time or lighting that had a similar effect and suddenly, very suddenly, I understood something I had not understood before.  I understood what people meant when they suggested that sensory issues can affect one’s actions, or as they say when referring to autism – how sensory issues can result in “behaviors”.

Had the banging noise continued in the grocery store I would have said something, and it would not have been kind or thoughtful or restrained.  I would have had “behaviors” as a direct result of that awful noise.  Had someone told me to calm down I would have been even more furious.  My actions would most certainly have been viewed as over reacting or needlessly extreme.

Had I not been present when my friend Bridget told me how awful she felt and that she needed to sit down for a second and then told me why, I would not have noticed the awful carpeting nor would I have understood how the pattern of a carpet could disrupt one’s equilibrium so much so that one might lose the ability to speak.  These are the things I am learning.  These are the things that make the difference between understanding, and maybe even being able to do something helpful and not.

An Innocent Paper Bag...

An Innocent Paper Bag…

“It’s Important That Other Parents Understand.”

Written by Emma Zurcher-Long

“I will talk about the upheaval from last night”

“I toyed with downward feelings of rage then

as bountiful memories seeped into my raging mind

I surrendered to purposeful sleep

my screaming mind is momentarily spared from stormy thoughts

piercing my being

threatening no kindness

patience is ground down til pounding terror is all that remains.

Only the dedicated few

talk about love during episodes of furious pain

their love is rejuvenative and restores faith in this awkward world.”


From Ariane:

Emma wrote this after having a very rough night over the weekend.  I asked her if it was okay to post her beautiful words here and she agreed.  I asked because there was a time before we had found a way to support Emma’s outpouring of words, before she was able to write, before we were able to understand, before we understood…  those were the times when nights such as the one she is referring to were even more devastating for all of us and our assumptions about what might be going on were so often wrong.  Emma agreed to post this because, “It’s important that other parents understand.”  The problem with the assumptions we made was that they often led us to then behave accordingly, even without meaning to, they affected how we responded to her.

We might have thought – this is a manipulation, she is doing this to us.  We are being held hostage to her screams.  We would mistake her terror for manipulation.  We might withhold our love in anger.  We might assume that to not do so was giving in or condoning the “behavior”.  We might do any number of things to “show” her that this way of being was unacceptable.  Except that this “way of being” was so beyond the scope of our experiences, so beyond what we could make sense of.

“Pounding terror is all that remains.”

And so I remembered afterward the comments from this post, “What Others Had to Say: Love, Overwhelm, Violence” and all the people who so generously opened up their lives and wrote about their experiences with being overwhelmed and no longer able to cope.  That point when feelings completely take over and all we can do is weather the storm.  Emily K. wrote: “Remove yourself from “their” space but do not leave. Defend yourself but do not leave. Let your child Leave/ escape and do not block his/her path. Follow but do not intrude. Allow space and time do not react but respond in the opposite, we need peaceful and loving parents.”

And Autisticook who wrote:  “It will get better.”

And she also wrote this:  “Teach me how to be upset. Show me there are other ways of being upset, instead of only telling me the way I have chosen is wrong and leaving it at that.”

And this:  “You’re the adult, so I’m depending on you to explain to me what I’m doing and why. I won’t be able to correct you on your assumptions until I’m an adult myself. So please be careful in learning my behaviour and don’t label it until you’re absolutely sure. It’s also OK to ask my input on this when I’m calm and happy.”

And this:  “Allow me a way out. If my self-regulating isn’t allowed, I can guarantee you I will get a meltdown. And once I am in that space, all I can think of is making the thing stop that made me go into meltdown. I only have short term memory and very limited reasoning power when I go into meltdown, so I will latch onto whatever trigger I see in front of me.”

And this:  “I will keep triggering until the world is empty of triggers or until I am utterly exhausted. So if you hold me down, you’re actually keeping me in the world of triggers. I need a different world that is practically triggerless. But I’m too young to know this, which is why I will sometimes keep following you and hitting you even though you try to remove yourself. Because I want the upset feeling to stop and the only way I know how to stop something is to hit it until it stops moving.”

And THIS.  This is SO important:  “Don’t ask me questions.  If you want to know how I’m feeling, please ask me afterwards, when I have calmed down and can find my words again.

And this: “Don’t try to distract me.”

And this:  “Once I’m in my safe space and I know people will no longer ask me questions and I can block out the noises and lights and stim to my heart’s content without someone telling me it’s wrong, I usually calm down within an hour or two.”

And finally, this:  “Please give me time to process.”

I would like to report here that I remembered each and every one of these things and that I put them all into action, but I didn’t.  What I did do was try to remain calm and loving.  And when my calm began to fray, I tried to remove myself, while reminding her of my love.  I did a number of things right, and I made a number of mistakes.   We are all learning here.  When calm was restored Emma said she wanted to write about “the upheaval from last night.”  This was in response to my question, “Is there something in particular you want to talk about this morning or would you prefer we discuss an article from the New York Times?

I was surprised she wanted to talk about it.  And then she wrote those beautiful words, which I can only describe as less prose and more poetry, a song, really.  A song borne of experience, despair, and transformed into a thing of beauty.

The beauty of Emma.

Emma ~ 2012

Emma ~ 2012


When the Words Don’t Match

The other night Em woke up at around 2:00AM crying.  She kept saying the same words over and over.  It was a kind of script, about an indoor playground that I used to take both children to when they were toddlers.  It is a playground that has been closed for more than six years.  “Mommy has to look.  Daddy has to find new Sydney playground.  The tickets are broken.  Mommy has to fix it.  Oh.  You want to go to new Sydney playground!”

Do not try to translate this.  Lean into the emotion, what is she telling you?  Forget the actual words, the individual words are less important, it’s the emotion, it’s the intent… 

This is what I’ve been taught.  I’ve paraphrased the exact words my friend Ibby actually used, but it captures the general idea of what she has reminded me of more than once.  It’s an important concept and one that I didn’t readily understand at first.  In fact our initial conversation went something like this –

Ibby:  Do you speak another language?

Me:  What?  No.  I barely speak English.  Do I need to learn another language?  If you tell me I need to learn Russian to help me understand, I’m on it.

Ibby:  (I imagine Ibby took a deep, calming breath before continuing)  No.  You do not need to learn Russian.  But you need to feel the words instead of trying to do a word for word translation.

Me:  Feel the words?  Mind began to race, a panicky feeling overtook my body. I don’t know what that means!  What does that mean?

And so Ibby patiently tried to explain that by getting lost in the exact meaning of the words I was missing the emotions being expressed.

With this in mind, I went back to Emma’s bedroom with her.  Very distressed, she continued to repeat the script and then suddenly veered off to an unrelated, yet another, unattainable, desire.  “I want to go to Martha’s Vineyard.  Not binyard, v, v, v, vineyard.  Mommy I want to go to Martha’s Vineyard.  No baby.  We can’t go to Martha’s Vineyard, it’s too cold.  I want to go to Martha’s Vineyard.”

As I sat with her listening, I tried to be present, neither lying to her nor adding to her anxiety, just being present and as I did this I felt a flood of recognition.  I realized I do a version of this too, only I call it “spiraling out”.  It happens at odd times, but being tired makes it harder to cope with.  When I think about how I spiral out an image of a pin ball machine comes to mind.  My thoughts are the little metal ball careening around hitting one side, ricocheting off the little bouncy things that make noise while the lights flicker, before shooting off in another direction.  Nothing anyone says helps me.  In fact, often well-intentioned people will make it much, much worse, because my mind is literally looking for things to think about that will create more anxiety.  The only thing that has ever helped me when I get this way is a calm, loving voice gently nudging me down a different path.  It has to be authentic and very, very loving and very, very calm or I become suspicious and even angry.  With this thought in mind I gently said to Em, “Is it okay if I tell you something?”  She nodded her head.

“I get upset too, Em.  Just like you are right now.  And when I do I have thoughts that I can’t stop going around around in my head.”

She sat up and looked directly into my eyes.  “Sometimes when I feel stressed and tired I can’t make the thoughts go away.  Sometimes the same thoughts just keep repeating in my head and I can’t get rid of them.  Daddy calls it spiraling out.  But you know what?  It’s going to be okay.  I’m going to stay with you.  It’s going to be okay.  I promise.  Try to breathe.  Here breathe with me.”  We inhaled together and then exhaled.  “Feel the cool air on your face and the warmth of the blanket on your body.”  I continued in this way, talking to her softly, trying to guide her, trying to make her aware of the present.  These are the things that help me when I’m agitated and feeling overwhelmed and eventually she rested her head on me, leaning her body into me as I spoke to her in a soft voice.

It was during those early morning hours with the two of us sitting together while everyone around us slept that I felt a surge of understanding.  When I get lost in the words that fill my head and when the words don’t match up with the emotions it feels confusing and I become perseverative and spiral out.  I see this now.  In the past I’ve called it anxiety.  I’ve said I’m overwhelmed and tired.  These are good words to describe what I’m feeling, but a more accurate explanation is that when I become fixated on specific thoughts, in my case they are often in the form of fears, I can become so lost in the specifics I lose sight of the emotions.  This has happened my whole life, only it took my daughter to get me to make the connection.  We are not so different, my daughter and I.

An image that calms me – The Manhattan Skyline taken while walking to my studio the other morning

Manhattan Skyline

Zurcher’s Folly

Yesterday I asked Emma, “Do you want to go to the indoor pool?”

To my surprise she answered, “No.”

“Do you want to go for a walk?” I asked.

She said nothing, which could mean she wanted to or it also might mean she didn’t.  It could go either way.

I needed to be more specific.  “Do you want to go to the cabin?”

“Yes!” She replied.  She ran into the mudroom and grabbed a leash, which she attached to my shorts.  There is a history (as there is with almost everything she does) to the leash.  When she was a toddler, she became absolutely terrified of dogs, all dogs.  We would explain to her that the dogs wouldn’t hurt her and anyway they would be on a leash.  The only way she could be convinced to go on a hike was if she could hold the leash.  Over time that led to putting me on a leash and now it is a given that the dogs run freely, but I am on a leash that Emma holds and occasionally tugs on if I am not going quickly enough or conversely, am going too quickly to force me to slow down.  In any event, it works.

Off to the cabin we went, the dogs racing around fighting over various sticks they found along the way and Emma and I leashed together.

The cabin, one room, no hot water, no electricity, a wood burning stove and fireplace, was nick named “Zurcher’s Folly”.  My immediate family built it log by log and at the time, my father, in particular wondered if it would sit unused.   In the 1970’s the ranch had no houses on it, just fields, shrub, irrigation ditches some beaver dams, herds of elk roamed through each winter, bears and coyote took over in the summer.   The only structures were a barn and the ranch house at the edge of the property where a revolving door of people lived in return for taking care of the irrigation ditches, sometimes boarding horses on the land.

Since the cabin was built various family members have slept in it.  During a brief break between colleges I even lived in it for four months, packing my food and water in, sitting out on the deck looking out onto the Rockies and contemplated life.  The cabin has always held a special place in my heart, a place my family built with their own hands and hard work, a place of solitude, removed from everything else.  Unless an airplane flew overhead one would not know what year it was.  We go out to the cabin at least once every time we come to Aspen.  A pilgrimage of sorts, it is a reminder of what is important in life and what we all love about being in this part of the world.

My two children have been going out to the cabin ever since they were born.  So it was with a certain degree of excitement that Emma and I made our way through the grass and fallen trees before rounding the bend and caught our first glimpse of the cabin’s roof.

Emma immediately began to run.  After I’d unlocked the door, she dropped the leash and fell onto a mouse dung covered platform, which serves as one of two beds.  We stayed there for a few hours, me rereading the journal we keep where everyone who has visited the cabin over the past thirty plus years is encouraged to make an entry, and Emma singing and dancing.

On the way home Emma grabbed the leash once again and tugged on it.

“What?” I asked.

“Go to the indoor pool,” Emma said.

“But it’s too late now, Emma.  We have to go home and get dressed for the picnic we’re going to,” I said.

Emma pretended to cry with an exaggerated facial expression.  Sometimes this leads to Emma actually crying, what begins as a kind of joke can soon turn into the real thing.

I began to sing, “We can’t go to the indoor pool.  We’re going to a picnic.”

Emma picked up where I left off, “I want to go to the indoor pool,” she sang, then looked at me.

“We can’t, we can’t, we can’t,” I sang back.

Then Emma sang, “Tomorrow, tomorrow, tomorrow.”

We went on like this making up verses and melodies, sometimes overlapping each other, sometimes stopping mid “verse” until the other picked it up.

“I could hear you two singing all the way up the trail,” Richard said when we eventually returned to the house.

“Wasn’t that great?” I asked.

“She’s doing great, Ariane,” Richard replied.

And he’s right.

She is.