Explosions, meltdowns and school problems
This post started out as a simple piece on strategies to improve temper control and manage meltdowns, but as I started writing it became more than that so I have split it into three parts. This part will give some background to my experience with my son, explain a typology of violence and demonstrate how poor understanding in schools can exacerbate problems. The next two parts will explore in more detail the combination of strategies and techniques which have worked for us.
My son started ‘lashing out’ at nursery, but it became a real problem when he started school. Looking back I can appreciate how hard his nursery had worked to support his needs, calling in external advice and actually following the advice. Nursery staffing ratios and the physical space of the setting helped too. The nursery took up the ground floor of a big old solid Victorian house with vast gardens and quiet spaces. The free flow of this setting meant my son could make choices and choose activities. He had more autonomy over his choices at nursery than at any other stage of his education so far.
He started school a few months after his fourth birthday, not diagnosed or even referred for assessment, though he was recognised as having some special educational needs and had extra support for the transition. Despite raising the possibility that he was autistic several times, it was never taken seriously. School were dealing with an aggressive child, who struggled to interact with other children, but who was highly articulate and appeared ‘bright’ and capable, whilst refusing to accept that there might be a reason for the obvious disparities.
At the beginning, I worked alongside school, supporting their sanctions, because that’s what we are told ‘good parents’ do. I removed privileges at home after ‘bad days’ and rewarded my son for days without incidents. It didn’t make any difference as he didn’t respond to sanctions and rewards. He could verbalise that he knew it was wrong to hurt other children but he couldn’t stop himself.
At some stage during that reception year I came to my senses, realised that this wasn’t working, and if anything, was making things worse, so I stopped. I realised that anxiety was making him lash out, and that focusing all my energies on trying to address the violent behaviours wasn’t helping and was making home life pretty grim.
If I had continued to use sanctions, rewards, and other inflexible approaches, I know, without a doubt, that my son would not have done so well. To encourage flexibility of thought, we must model it. To encourage staying calm we must model it. To encourage kindness we must model it. Inflexible, draconian, harsh parenting doesn’t provide the modelling our children need.
Over the years which followed, he got his autism diagnosis (and a few more) but school continued to be a challenge. With hindsight I wish I had changed schools. It is only now that he is in a supportive, responsive and pro-active secondary school that I realise how much easier it is when school both respect a parent’s knowledge and want to work in partnership.
Parenting a violent child is hard, we do it in secret, too embarrassed and ashamed to talk about it. The internet is often our only way to find other parents (usually mothers) coping with similar issues. Nobody says it out loud. We need to. Too many autistic and otherwise disabled children are being failed because these behaviours are seen as indications of poor parenting, lack of boundaries and ineffective discipline.
Two types of violence
Too often children who lash out in distress are labelled as ‘bullies’, particularly by the parents of their classmates and peers. My son has never been a bully. The confusion arises because people misinterpret the behaviour. There are two broadly recognised types of violence:
Instrumental violence and aggression is where the aggressor uses violence (or threat of violence) as a means to an end. It requires an intent to harm, or provoke fear of harm, and is controlled and calculated. The aggressor will usually take steps to hide their behaviour. This is typically the sort of aggression used by bullies, who check who’s looking before they act, and who lie and manipulate to avoid detection. Because the aggressor seeks to evade detection for fear of consequences they are more likely to cease when risking a feared sanction.
Expressive violence and aggression is altogether different. There is no planning, no intent to harm or gain, and minimal control. It stems from our instinctive fight, flight or freeze stress response. This sort of often explosive violence is rarely hidden, though as children get older that may hold it in and explode later, which is why so many autistic children appear ‘fine’ at school and become violent, destructive and suicidal at home. It’s not that school is great and the parents are hopeless, quite often it’s the very opposite, that school are failing to recognise a child’s rising distress while the child uses all their strength to hold it in and ‘be good’.
This expressive violence is the type we see most in autistic children, who are frequently not socially sophisticated enough to plan and carry out instrumental violence, and whose violent behaviours are, almost always, an extreme stress response.
Parenting a child who is violent and aggressive at school places us in a difficult position. On the one hand it’s your child so you feel you have some responsibility. None of us want our children to be violent at school. On the other hand, school are in loco parentis and have a duty to meet needs and provide appropriate support. Unfortunately, school behaviour policies are often built on tackling instrumental violence, relying on escalating levels of sanctions as both deterrent and punishment.
If you use those strategies for children whose violence is impulsive, expressive and stress-based, you risk making them more stressed and more prone to explosive and reactive aggression, lashing out and meltdowns. This can create a vicious cycle of stress, explosion, sanction, more stress, more explosions and so on. For far too many children this results in eventual exclusion from school. I don’t know how my son avoided exclusion, I know of many children excluded for less serious and less frequent violence.
With my son, there were broadly two types of children who got hurt by him lashing out at school. Some more socially sophisticated children appeared to take great pleasure in provoking and goading him, stepping back when he lost control, amused by his reactions and distress. They had the skills and awareness to not be seen or caught, whilst my son couldn’t find the words to explain what had happened (you can probably guess who got in trouble).
Hours or even days later I would find out what had led to the incident. Teachers always wanted to know straight away so they could take action. But with an autistic child you might need to wait until they are in the right frame of mind to explain. It can take very careful questioning to get to the real cause. I would do this at home, slowly working backwards from the incident to find the precursors.
The other type of children who often got hurt were the opposite, the caring boys and girls who would recognise my son was upset and approach him out of kindness. Unfortunately, their kindly questioning, checking my son’s well-being, and well meant touch (neurotypical children can be very tactile!) would be perceived by my son as a further attack and his fight instinct would erupt. These children probably suffered most. They were trying to be nice and were rewarded with a push or a kick.
Throughout those primary school years, I was working hard at finding and using strategies and techniques which worked. School were inconsistent in their approach and poor at spotting his rising anxiety, despite having considerable 1-1 support. Things that were working would be suddenly withdrawn, school failed to carry out advice from external professionals and ignored most of my suggestions.
As my son became more effective at masking in school much of the violence was delayed until he reached home at the end of the day. Each day at home time I would swiftly get him to the car hoping he wouldn’t explode before we got home. School never saw this. They thought he was fine. He wasn’t fine at all, he was in a state of heightened anxiety most of the time, but he wanted to go to school and he wanted to learn.
Throughout those primary school years I found ways to ameliorate the worst and help develop the skills he needed. My son has made remarkable progress. At his last annual review, with a new SENCO, her first words to me were “Wow! Hasn’t he come far. I’ve just been reading his file and I cannot believe it’s the same child”
The next two parts will show how we got here.