Alice's Voice

The One Question You Should Ask Yourself in the Middle of a Breakdown

A few months ago another autism mom like me posted her experience with her young son having a meltdown at a theme park and the response of a Universal Resort employee who got down on the floor and breathed with him until he settled.  Like the millions who responded on social media, I was moved, and I felt connected.  My connection may be a little deeper than most — I was that mom and I’ve been that employee.

My twenty-three-year-old son Henry has autism, and we have experienced plenty of exquisite meltdowns during his early years. Oh wait, we just had one this morning, perhaps a little more refined, but a meltdown nonetheless.

I was an actor at both Universal and Disney in Orlando for twenty years and interacted with all sorts of people at all sorts of moments in their lives (I’ll never forget the little girl who pulled out her tooth during one of my shows!) Reading Lenore Koppelman’s Facebook post I felt it in my gut — what she was going through and what the employee was experiencing.

Their story reminded me of the time I picked up three-year-old Henry in the evening from my parents’ house. Henry had trouble sleeping for much of his early years. You can’t slow that brain down. He was playing at my parents’, which meant bouncing up and down for hours in the pool with Granddad. My mother created a room for him, one he still uses by the way, with a trundle bed, a pet pal, framed pictures of animals, and picture books that were mine or my brother’s when were were little kids.  Stand Back Said The Elephant I’m Going To Sneeze!  

Granddad and Henry having a good time without mom’s help.

Henry would sleep, well really nap, for only a few hours most nights. Heading to their house and collecting him around 8 p.m. was our regular practice and helped keep sleepless nights localized to just mom.

On this night, we picked him up, woke him up, and he fussed. I put him in his car seat and started for home.  His fussing turned to crying, then to sobbing and wailing.  A full on meltdown as described by the mother in the Facebook post.  

I tried all the techniques. Use your words, use your words I pleaded over the wailing.  What is it you want?  Sippy cup?  Snack?  Blankie?  We’ll be home soon!  I promise.  I was getting more shrill.  

The higher my voice and energy went, the more he wailed. So I stopped. I just stopped. I thought about what would have happened to me if I was woken in the middle of the night and moved from my grandparents’ house.  My grandparents who had a tough relationship with their child, my mother, but who doted on me. They gave me Pop Tarts. Took me to the park to feed the squirrels and watch the symphony play. Nana put crisp flowered sheets with blue polka dots on the upstairs twin bed and opened the window so I could hear the music of the second concert coming from the park.

I would have been traumatized if I was torn away from that without explanation.  I would have felt untethered, frightened that I could be ripped away from something safe and lovely at any moment. I might have been afraid that if that could happen, then anything bad could at any moment. 

I turned around in the passenger seat, softened my eyes and lowered my pitch.  

“Henry.  I’m sorry we woke you up.  I’m sorry we took you from Mimi and Granddad’s house. From now on, you can spend the whole night at their house and wake up there and have waffles with them. Tonight we’ll go to our house.”  

The wailing continued and so did I. 

“Mimi and Grandad love you.  Dad loves you. I love you.  Do you feel loved?” 

He took a giant gulp of air. And like that, the sobbing stopped.

“It’s okay to be sad when you know you are loved. Do you feel loved?”

The wailing stopped. He looked at me with total clarity and all was peaceful. 

Through the years if a situation is out of control, I ask this question to him and to myself — do you feel loved?  No matter what is raging around me I can stop and ask, yes, but do I feel loved? 

A meltdown for your birthday. Haven’t we all had one?

I can always find the love if I look — even if it’s not in the people or situation that’s causing the trauma because someone, somewhere loves me. Even if it is just my long-gone Nana with the flowered polka dot sheets. Do you feel loved? As soon as I find it, the power plant at the damn clicks off and the water stops rushing and all is still.

I imagine this is what the attractions hostess at Universal asked herself before she lay down on the ground, though maybe she wouldn’t articulate it that way.  She slowed herself down — instead of feeling the panic rise in her from his panic, instead of getting caught up in the frenzy of the surrounding crowd, she lived out the answer to the question ‘Do you feel loved?’ She let him know it was okay to be sad when you feel loved. She felt it, he felt it, and then it rippled out to his mom, the people around them, and the millions that have shared the story.

Asking the question ‘Do I feel loved?’ is a quick line back to all that is available to you.  In fact, when adult Henry had his meltdown this morning refusing to go to work the day after vacation by repeating over and over, “I can’t!  I just can’t!  I’m crying and I can’t!” I stopped explaining why he had to, reminded him it’s okay to be sad and then asked the question — do you feel loved?

Panic subsided, sadness was okay, and we remembered that we are loved.


Henry and his mom last week before coming back from vacation.

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