Cleanup on Aisle 5: Tantrum or Meltdown?

Meltdowns and tantrums batter our senses in similar ways.  Plenty of ugly noise and maybe even a slap, kick, bite, flying object or other physical violation of the caregiver.  And there’s the wonderful emotional component, putting the parent/caregiver in a spotlight for a disapproving world.  “Why, in my day I’d a’ solved it with a good slap on the bottom.”

Supermarkets are prime territory for meltdowns and tantrums, but also help explain some of the differences between the two.

The aisles are filled with tasty stuff packaged colorfully and decorated with a kid’s cartoon, sport or celebrity gods.  So a tantrum is a rational effort to have the caregiver purchase some of the crap  products for home consumption or maybe even for the desirous kid to snack on while leaving crumbs all over the store.

A tantrum is an exercise in the use of power to achieve a goal.  Nasty as it is, a tantrum is a typical part of child development, a teachable moment that feels like an hour, a chance to help a child grow into more civilized problem solving and relationship skills.

At the same time, the store is a bombardment on the senses of a person with autism or other special needs.  Glaring lights and colors, quick temperature changes by coolers or hot food counters, a multitude of voices including disembodied overhead announcements, people and cargo in motion every which way, and, what the heck, maybe somebody’s kid having a tantrum.  The stress level for a person with special needs can go off the charts.

In that state of agitation, a person with autism will try to communicate.  Maybe he or she wants you to know that this environment is too much.  Or maybe there’s the typical desire for you to buy a particular item or not buy something the person finds icky.  And people with special needs have favorite characters on packaging, too.

Maybe the caregiver is peppering the person with questions, “Should we get this?  Or this? Or this?”  It adds to the overload.

A meltdown is not purposeful like a tantrum.  It is frustration at being unable to process all of the input and/or not having one’s output understood.  Yes, it looks like a tantrum, but it is not guided by a purposeful thought.  It is every system in the person’s body going haywire.

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Please stay to the right, dammit.

Let’s try this parable, also from the supermarket.  Here’s the humble shopping cart.

In Southern California, where my wife and I grew up, you have a culture just as tied to automobiles as were the Mongols to horses.

So in the market, you push this cart according to the rules of the road.  You stay to the right.  You keep the cart in front of you, pushing it just past the product you want so you can reach up and get it while leaving the other half of the aisle open to all the cart traffic going the other way.  The emphasis is on keeping things moving.

What one does with a cart has a logic to it.  Violations of that logic are considered rude.

Now we live in South Dakota, a culture of farms, open space and small towns.  People hop off their tractor and leave it in the field to break for lunch.  You can park your car wherever and even in the cities you don’t have much trouble picking a space.

In the market, it’s the same.  You see an item on the right side of the aisle, and you just leave your cart on the left side while you fetch said item.  In other words, between your cart and your butt, you’re blocking the entire aisle.

Except here, that is not rude.  What in Southern California would be a selfish violation of the rules of the road is, in South Dakota, an exercise in uncomplicated freedom.

See?

Tantrums are ugly, noisy and possibly violent expressions of neurotypical social development.

Meltdowns are ugly, noisy and possibly violent expressions of neurological overload in people with special needs.

Hmm.  Guess that doesn’t clear it up as much as I thought.  Now I’m wondering if my road aisle rage when somebody’s cart and big butt blocks an aisle is my lack of social assimilation or just my claustrophobia kicking in.

Sometimes I think the whole world has autism.

 

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