Monday with Maureen: 6 Things to NOT DO When Handling Your Child with Autism’s Meltdown

By Joanne Giacomini
For The Suburban

How many of you parents out there have had a day you wish you take back from the second it started? Well, I had one of those days last week. It was a Sunday morning, and I was happy that I managed to crawl out of bed earlier than my son to get in some meditation before the activity packed day began. Meditation helps center and calm me, so I can face anything that is thrown my way. Well, usually. The problem was that even with my wonderful strategies to manage my stress, I was still wound up from my week. Afterwards when the storm was over, I thought to myself, how could I have handled this better? What tools/strategies did I not use? So today I want to share with you, as one parent of a special needs child to another, the 6 things to NOT DO when handling your child with autism’s meltdown.

6 Things to NOT DO When Handling Your Child with Autism’s Meltdown:

1) Do not become irritated when child asks you to smile/why you are not happy: This was the first thing that triggered me. The best response would have been to say I am feeling tired and need time to wake up. Also, be aware of your triggers with words/actions.

2) Do not attempt to handle said child on your own-get backup: My next mistake was not seeking out Dad sooner who was the calmer of the two parents that weekend.

3) Do not stay in the same room if you can, or if you must, go to your calm place in your head: This is hard. As long as the child is not in real danger, walking away to another room to clear your head can help you as a parent handle their rising anxiety and emotions better. Another option as a friend of mine did, go away in your head to your “happy place” to calm down.

4) Do not yell at your child when they are deliberately insulting or hitting you: Another toughie. This is direct provocation, a physical or psychological insult. We know that the best response is a calm unemotional “no hitting”, “you need to go calm down,” and ignoring, but as human beings, it is hard particularly when it is a family member whom you love.

5) Do not force child to do “calm down strategies” when they are in full-fledged meltdown: I started yelling at my son about his strategies in pure frustration when he was already in full meltdown mode out of control. That never works, even for adults. When he came out of his room crying and asked for a hug, that’s when it was a good time to remind him about strategies and I did. He apologized, and we walked up and down the hall way as I reminded him that one of his strategies when he feels pain in his stomach (an early anxiety warning sign), is to walk.

6) Do not neglect your own body’s signals that you are stressed: Another toughie. I was triggered as I was not watching my own body’s response properly. Had I been, I would have started breathing and calming my mind, asked for help, or did some walking myself to focus better on my son’s pain.

The good thing about an experience like this is the learning potential. Remember to go easy on yourself as a parent, and that above all, you are a human being and doing the best you can.

Joanne Giacomini is a writer, editor, speaker and parent coach at “Exceptional Parenting/Exceptional Balance” She helps special needs parents by offering them tips and tools for their parenting journey, so they and their children can live life happy, whole and in balance. She also blogs about how her son with autism is raising her at “Exceptional Mom/Exceptional Child” You can follow Joanne on Twitter @exceptmomchild.

Mondays with Maureen: To the Mom-to-Be at the Store Giving Us a Look I Know So Well

By Jen Ketner
The Mighty

We shared a moment today, soon-to-be mama.

You were coming down the grocery store aisle, glowing and beautiful, and probably a couple months away from being a mother, possibly for the first time. We locked eyes for a second, and I couldn’t help but glance at your belly and smile. At about that time, you looked at my little boy in the race-car shopping cart. The moment you glanced down, probably to smile at my son, my previously quiet boy started to yell and flap with wide eyes at the toy giraffe in his hands.

This caught you off guard, and you diverted your gaze quickly. You barely caught my eyes again with an uneasy smile as you walked past, but I could see it. I know it so well, you see. Fear — not of me or my son, but for yourself, for your future child.

I wish I could have reached across that awkward moment and said this:

Please, don’t be afraid. There is an epidemic, but not in the way people think, not of the big A. It’s an epidemic of fear and misunderstanding, and it’s spreading like wildfire. I suffered from the disease personally. The fear of doing something wrong that would affect my child, the fear of having a child that wasn’t “typical,” the fear of my life not turning out how I’d always planned it.

Dear future mom — being afraid of it, and even trying my best to prevent it, couldn’t keep it from happening. All it succeeded in doing was nearly driving me mad.

I wish I had said:

I’m the lucky one for having this special boy. He is the most interesting, beautifully minded, amazing person I’ve ever met. I wouldn’t trade this experience, being his mother, for anything. I’ve met wonderful, inspiring people, seen love work in ways I could’ve never imagined, and I’ve witnessed miracles every day. I was forced to grow in ways I thought I didn’t even need to. I realized I was so much stronger than I ever believed myself to be. None of this would’ve happened if one of my biggest fears — and truly it was — hadn’t come true.

I don’t know what the future holds for you, mama, but I can tell you this :

if your baby does turn out to be anything like my son, you will have the most painfully beautiful life. You will feel blessed and in awe of your child and yourself and the world. You will probably cry lots of tears of frustration, but you’ll cry even more tears of joy. You will be OK. I promise.

Most of all, you’ll be the second luckiest mother in the whole world.

Read more:

Mondays with Maureen: Help your child survive the holidays

13 Holiday Survival Tips For Your Child With Special Needs

By Emma Sterland
Special Needs Resources


While most children live for the holiday season, it can be an extremely stressful time of year for children with autism and other forms of learning disability. The disruption to their routine, unfamiliar sights and smells, the house full of noise and people – it can all prove too much. Holidays are all about the family, but it can be hard keeping everyone happy.

The following tips for surviving the holiday season have been contributed to Scope by parents of children and adults with special needs.  The general consensus seems to be to plan ahead. Whether that’s creating a visual story for your child, preparing them what to expect, or giving relatives a heads-up in advance about your child’s particular needs – preparation is key.

1. Reduce The Stress

Try to find ways to reduce the stress – both on your child and you. Schedule in quiet times and create chill-out zones in your home. Remember, your child will pick up on your stress levels, so try not to over-stretch yourself.

2. Ask For Help

Friends and family may not know how they can help unless you tell them. Give them a list of things they can do to support you – from looking after your child while you spend quality time with your other children – to pouring you a glass of champagne!

3. Wrap Up Familiar Toys

If your child is not keen on opening presents because they’re new and unfamiliar, try wrapping up some favorite toys. Sometimes unwrapping something familiar is very reassuring.

4. Give Your Child A Job And A Schedule

I always give my children, who have ASD, ‘jobs’ to do at family gatherings – take coats, offer nibbles round etc. Giving them something to do reduces their stress of having people in the house. I also give them an itinerary so they understand, for example, that people stand around and chat a lot, and that is part of the occasion.

5. Manage New Smells

Add cinnamon to your child’s play-dough to gradually introduce new smells. One thing that people with autism complain about during the holidays is the many different perfume smells coming from visiting adults. Ask your family and friends to hold off on the perfume.

6. Work On Gift Giving

Help and encourage the person you are caring for to give gifts. This provides an excellent opportunity to work on social skills, like thinking of other people’s needs and interests, and being kind and helpful. I support my daughter to make gifts for her family and friends. She also looks forward to giving out the presents as well.

7. Reserve Some Special Time For Your Child

It’s easy to get overloaded with festive preparations at this time of year, so plan daily activities to make some special time for your kids – ie. 5 to 10 mins of undivided attention. Let your child take the lead, tune into their world and see it through their eyes.

8. Create A Weekly Calendar

Print off a week-to-view calendar page from your PC or the internet and add a picture of your planned activities during the holidays (divide into morning, lunch afternoon etc) and this will help put your child at ease about the week ahead.

9. Prepare Your Family

Talk to family members ahead of time. Discuss your child’s specific needs, and gently but firmly tell them what your plans are. Be sure to let them know that this will make the whole experience better for everyone. Ask for their support.

10. Prepare A Bag Of Activities

When you are visiting friends or relatives, fill a backpack with things your child finds comforting or enjoys playing with – toy cars, a stuffed animal, a CD and CD player, or a few books. If your child gets over stimulated, find a quiet corner or a back room and pull out the backpack.

11. Prepare With Pictures

Our daughter loves looking at pictures and we have found it a great way of explaining different events to her. We have a holiday season book we’ve made with pictures of her and the family doing things in the holidays. We’ve included pictures of her in the school play, relatives coming to visit, etc. It helps her not to get overwhelmed with what’s going on.

12. Create an Alternative Experience

I run a group for kids who have an autism spectrum disorder. Instead of having a party at this time of year, we arrange an experience for them. For them and us, as their parents, it’s much more enjoyable as there is no pressure to conform to the demands that a social occasion puts on them.

13. Easy To Open Presents

My son has trouble with fine motor skills so I ‘doctor’ his cards and presents to allow him to open them easily. Makes for a much happier time for all and gives him a sense of satisfaction that he can complete tasks.

Mondays with Maureen: Does your child have Sensory Processing Disorder?

Often mischaracterized as autism, ADHD or bad behavior, sensory processing disorder can make everyday sights and sounds feel overwhelming.

By Anna Medaris Miller
U. S. News and World Report

Probation officer Sandra Cardone couldn’t help but think the worst. Her son Christopher, now 6, misbehaved at school daily, threw frequent fits at home, refused to kiss his grandparents and even jumped on a little girl in a foam pit without showing remorse.

“That scared the hell out of me,” says Cardone, 49, who lives in Rocky Hill, Connecticut. “What is my son?” she thought. “Is he going to be a criminal?”

Chicago resident Kelly Jurecko’s mind went elsewhere. Her son Riley, now 9, was a fearless baby with an exceptional pain tolerance. He was walking at 7 months and running soon after. “We called him little Brian Urlacher,” says Jurecko, 34, referencing the former Chicago Bears linebacker. “I thought he was so tough, so cool.”

Truth is, there was a better explanation for Christopher and Riley’s behavior than future criminal or football-player-to-be: sensory processing disorder, a neurodevelopmental condition in which the brain misinterprets sensations such as light, sounds, movements and textures, according to the Sensory Processing Disorder Foundation.

“[People with SPD] may experience normal sounds as painfully loud, lights can be experienced as too bright and a gentle touch may feel intrusive and intense,” says Roya Ostovar, director of the Center for Neurodevelopmental Services at McLean Hospital in Belmont, Massachusetts. “It’s a struggle to get through the day-to-day activities such as showering, brushing your hair or being in a classroom with lots of children around you.”

That was the case for Christopher. He would scream when the sun hit his eyes, “freak out” if his socks rubbed his feet the wrong way and even collapse in the preschool line because his sense of balancewas off. “When he would feel overwhelmed, he would just misbehave … because he couldn’t verbalize what was going on,” Cardone says.

For Riley, the condition manifested the opposite way, giving him the urge to move from a young age. Even if he hurt himself, he didn’t get upset because he didn’t process the sensation of pain normally. Later as a toddler, he grew introverted – not knowing how to handle the world around him. He wouldn’t talk, barely ate and couldn’t sleep. On his first day of preschool, he bit the teacher because he didn’t know how to verbalize what he wanted. “Then I found out it was because he had sensory processing disorder,” Jurecko says. “It was shattering for me.”

An Evasive Diagnosis

Sensory processing disorder, which research suggests affects up to 16 percent of school-aged children, is not an official diagnosis in the American Psychiatric Association’s latest diagnostic manual, but it’s increasingly recognized among clinicians and teachers, says Ostovar, also an assistant professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School who wrote the 2010 book “The Ultimate Guide to Sensory Processing Disorder: Easy, Everyday Solutions to Sensory Challenges.” While it’s not clear what causes the condition, it seems to have a genetic component and has been linked to premature birth in some kids, says Dr. Pratik Mukherjee, an attending neuroradiologist at the University of California—San Francisco. ​

The condition is often mischaracterized as an autism spectrum disorder, which ​shares symptoms of SPD, or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, which can cause kids to act out in ways similar to SPD. It’s also frequently mislabeled as a behavioral problem or gender issue. “That’s the thing I’ve heard over and over again from the parents is that, ‘He’s just a boy,'” says Jurecko, who co-founded the nonprofit SPD Parent Zone after her son’s diagnosis.

While SPD is similar to other neurodevelopmental and behavioral conditions in some ways – for example, like autism, there’s a spectrum of severity and it’s more prevalent among boys – it’s a distinct condition, says Mukherjee​, whose research has shown differences in the brain’s white matter between kids with SPD and those with autism.

“It’s becoming clear that there are a lot of kids who have sensory processing issues just like autistic kids do, but do not have the other core features of autism,” he says. For example, people with SPD can have normal social skills and communication, traits often lacking for people on the autism spectrum. They also don’t show repetitive behaviors such as hand flapping or rocking that are common among people with autism. And, unlike people with ADHD, they won’t get used to sensations.​ “At this point, we don’t really believe you can outgrow these issues,” Ostovar says. “It’s really learning how to manage them and how to manage them in socially acceptable and adaptive ways.”

Still, plenty of doctors and educators don’t recognize the differences between SPD and other conditions, if they’ve heard of it at all. That’s why it’s particularly important for parents to listen to their gut if they believe something is “off” with their child, says Jurecko,​ whose pediatrician had brushed off her concerns because Riley was hitting developmental milestones. “No matter what the doctors say or teachers or family or friends [say], you have to trust your intuition,” she says. “You’re the parent, you’re the expert.”

Living With SPD

One day last year, Cardone was talking with a colleague about Christopher, whose behavior in school resulted in teachers calling her daily. “Your story sounds so much like my son, and he has sensory processing disorder,” Cardone remembers her colleague saying. “And I said, ‘What the heck is that?”

Cardone immediately Googled to find out, and her colleague’s suspicion was confirmed. “Every single story that I read, I saw my son’s picture,” she says. “It was very hard at first, but at least I could see that it had a name, and there was help and things that I could do.”

One of those things was calling an occupational therapist, who diagnosed Christopher in April with SPD. Occupational therapy is the most widely accepted treatment for SPD, says Ostovar, noting that each child will receive an individualized treatment plan based on their particular sensitivities. Many therapists will put children on a “sensory diet,”​ creating specific activities that stimulate the senses in a controlled, even fun, way. For example, a child who is sensitive to sound might listen to therapeutic music, while one who has trouble with movement will play on a swing. Kids who seek sensations like Riley might find a weighted blanket calms them down.

“The hope is that the child will learn these interventions and be able to identify them​ … and eventually be able to tolerate those things,” Ostovar says.

For Christopher, who does occupational therapy ​weekly, the improvements are noticeable. He can better verbalize what’s overwhelming to him, and last month, he wore long sleeves for the first time. Before, he insisted they be rolled up, lest he throw a tantrum. “It’s hard to know your child goes through this every minute of every day, but at the same time, he’s such a sweet, sweet boy,” says Cardone, who has also taught Christopher to meditate. “He brings so much joy into my life.”

Riley, who was diagnosed with SPD at age 2, also worked with an occupational therapist and still sees a speech therapist. Jurecko noticed a change right away. “The first night, he slept for the first time ever,” she says. Today, he’s a talkative, happy fourth-grader​. “He has surpassed all my hopes and dreams for him,” Jurecko says. Other parents of kids with SPD should take heart. “There’s so much hope and there’s so much help and things will get better,” she says.


Mondays with Maureen: What to do when your child hits you

What to do when your child hits you

Reduce hitting behavior in children with these ten steps.

By Andrea Nair 

It can be incredibly hard to stay calm when our own children hit us. Both our instinctual physical defense system and intense emotions can get triggered in a flash!

I remember the period when one of my children hit me almost every day; I became scared of him, trying to steer clear of where he was. We know that children can feel it when we pull away so although it can feel hard to do, the key to reducing hitting is to connect more with our aggressive child.

Here are ten steps to reducing hitting behaviour in your children:

The first thing to do when our child hits us is to FREEZE.

Remembering our calm-down plan can feel impossible when we are hit. The feeling of pain will automatically trigger the “reptilian brain,” which is the part that makes our heart pound, breathing quicken and stomach flip. It is common to think that our child is out to get us. This part of our brain can hijack our good reason, making us scream or be rough with our child.

We need to take time to calm our fight-or-flight reaction, then help our child do the same. My calm-down plan in this case is to tell myself, “freeze sister” and then I count back from 11 to -1 by 2s (this odd number makes it easier for the brain to focus more on counting and less on shouting). It’s okay if you have to step into another room to regroup, as long as your child is safe.

Stop your child from hitting you, others or objects.

I grab my child’s arm when I see a hit headed my way. I do that firmly, yet gently and say, “No hitting. I will make sure you don’t hurt anyone.”

Remind yourself that your child is having a hard time “self-regulating.”

Self-regulation is our ability to assess a situation, which we find overwhelming and respond in a way that helps us calm down. John Hoffman wrote this wonderful document about self-regulation, which I suggest all parents read.

Respond thoughtfully with a limit statement.

Get to eye-level with your child and speak to her in a gentle voice. First comment by setting limits for your child’s behaviour by using a statement that includes:

1.     How you feel

2.     Validations of her feelings

3.     Explanation that the behaviour is unacceptable.

Something like this, “My arm is sore… you hurt me. I can see that you are angry. I won’t let you hurt me or anyone else. Hitting people is not okay.”

Consider where the hit came from.

Take a moment to ask yourself, What happened in her world to prompt the hit?

Is she: Disappointed? Upset that plans have changed? Not going to get something she really wants? In a compromised state? Missing you? Feeling you are too hard on her?

Identifying the source of the hit will tell you what the first feeling is. Anger/frustration is the second feeling, which likely provoked the hit.

Help your child identify the first feeling.

Use empathy to help your child work on the feelings behind the hit. For example, if your child hit you because she was sad her friend couldn’t come over, shine a light on that emotion. Talk about how you would feel like this, “I understand you are sad because Anna couldn’t come over. I feel sad, too, when I am excited to play but can’t.”

Accept if you have had a bad parenting moment and your child is angry with you.

If you did something that may have angered your child, talk to her about that situation. I wrote more about how do that in this piece, How To Do Parent-Child Relationship Repair.

Make it safe for your child to feel the first feeling.

When a parent is calm, understanding and patient, it is easier for a child to connect with the intense feelings inside her. Keep chatting with your child about the situation, focusing on feeling words. Once your child feels you are there for her and not going to make her feel badly, she will likely become sad, which is the usual culprit for hits.

Be a detective, asking questions about what is upsetting her, although steer away from “why” questions with younger children, as they don’t usually have answers to that even if the reason for the hit is apparent to you.

Talk about “mixed feelings.”

This is when you use a statement to explain to your child that it is okay to be angry, but at the same time, you know that hitting a person hurts him/her and that is NOT okay.

Make a plan to stop the hits next time.

With younger children, I use the term “angry bubbles” like this, “Next time you are full of angry bubbles and they turn your mad into mean, what can you do to make sure those bubbles don’t form into a hit? Let’s make a plan.”

With a toddler, try, “Hits are for pillows, not people,” or “No hitting, hurting, or throwing.” You can make a poster and draw symbols for those words. I explain more about how to react to toddler hitting in this piece, as it is a natural instinct to hit, and our job as parents to calmly train them not to.

With older children, you could talk about how the brain works, specifically how to reel in the reptilian brain when it hijacks us. Consider different options to stopping the hits/throws/shouts that will actually work. Remember that this is a work in progress so keep repeating this process until the brain builds the bridge between the “freaking out” part of the mind to the rational part.

Here is an excellent example of a script to use when an older child hits by Laura Markham, PhD.

If you are looking for something to read on this topic, I suggest Positive Discipline by Jane Nelsen, PhD or Peaceful Parent, Happy Kids by Laura Markham, PhD. The book The Whole-Brain Child by Dr Dan Siegel and Tina Payne-Bryson, PhD will help you understand more about the brain and how to teach your child about how his/her brain works.