He’s seven. He stomps down the steps of the school bus carrying an elaborate Styrofoam leprechaun trap. The bright sun and blue skies are in stark contrast to his moody face. His eyes meet mine for a fraction of a second, then he drops the Styrofoam contraption. He rears his head back, throws his small body into a nearby parking lot space and begins to howl.
I’m used to meltdowns. My son has been having them since he was thirteen months old. Years of practice have made me an expert at identifying his triggers to prevent the meltdown altogether or waiting him out until his flailing-limbs storm can pass.
This time, his meltdown is the result of frustration at breaking one of his styrofoam cups while getting on to the bus. He is a perfectionist and incredibly hard on himself (inherited traits) and after putting hours into this elaborate trap (truth be to told, it was pretty cool), having it get damaged was simply unacceptable.
As I try to calm him down with soothing tones, I am also calculating how much time I have before a car pulls into the exact parking space he is flailing in. With a sense of urgency, I scoop him up, set him into our car, close the door, then take a very long breath before I join him in the backseat. I sit. I wait. After about twenty minutes, he is ready to listen and ready to talk and we continue on with our day.
As I said, I’m used to meltdowns. What I haven’t grown used to are his piercing words.
“Just kill me! Please! I want to die!”
I’ve heard these words before.
He was five the first time he told me wanted to die.
This is not “normal” for neurotypical kids. I found that out rather quickly when I asked friends if their own children had ever said this.
A resounding no, followed by incredulous looks.
Nothing can prepare you for these scary words coming from the mouth of someone you would gladly give your own life for.
My mother’s intuition assures me he doesn’t literally mean what he is saying, but the small speck of doubt prompts me to seek help. My son’s life isn’t something I am willing to take lightly.
We are fortunate enough to live near a reputable pediatric psychologist who specializes in neurodevelopmental diagnoses. He is someone our son truly enjoys talking to (that, and playing with the amazing arcade in the waiting room chock full of classic video games).
After the “leprechaun trap meltdown” (which failed to catch a leprechaun, but succeeded in capturing a few dropped coins from the leprechaun’s pocket), I find myself sitting in this psychologist’s office, sharing the story with him, worry etched on my face.
Without a moment’s hesitation, he says, “That’s very common in ASD kids. When they say they want to die, it means they’re sad. When they say they want you to kill them, it means they’re very uncomfortable and need a break.”
Speechless. An audible sigh of relief. “Can I get you to write that down?”
He continues. “Kids with ASD feel emotions on such a strong level that they are quick to react, both verbally and non verbally, and often in inappropriate, scary ways. The goal for you is to teach him to say the words that convey what he really wants. Teach him to say, ‘I feel sad’ or ‘I need some space because I’m angry.’ It’s not easy, but it can be taught.”
I am silent for a moment.
I give my son an extra big hug that day (I want to give his doctor one too, but I settle for a smile and a thank you), renewed with the knowledge that he is going to be okay. That while we we are working through another autism milestone, we are not working through it alone.
I share this story with you in hopes it will provide you with some relief. Relief that if your son or daughter has said these scary words, that they are going to be okay too.
I also want to remind you to always trust your parental instinct, but don’t be afraid to have it affirmed by trained professionals, especially when the concern could be life-threatening. Share your fears with someone else so you don’t have to carry the burden of worry alone. Peace of mind is a beautiful gift.
Okay. Time to go give my little man another big hug.
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