Guest Blogs

Meltdown at the Play Center

The flushed, pained, confused expression on his face — one we’ve seen hundreds of times before — tells us it’s happening again. Another sensory meltdown.

At some point in recent history, it was silently decreed that monolithic play centers should infiltrate every suburban neighborhood — hidden amongst factories, down dusty streets, and within shopping malls. Playful names like Gymboree, Magic! and Jump ‘n Jiggle belie the fact that these centers are actually training grounds for modern kiddie warfare.

Recently, we accepted an invitation to one of these play centers for the birthday party of another child on the autism spectrum whom T-Bone met in his social skills classes. Though I generally agree with the adage “If you’ve met one kid on the autism spectrum, you’ve met one kid on the autism spectrum,” the birthday boy reminds me a lot of my quirky T-Bone. When things annoy them, they really, really annoy them. To the point where their world consists entirely of this annoying thing and nothing else.

Sitting atop a neighborhood shopping center, the play center is all sounds, sights and activity. Sensory overload at its worst. A huge ball-shooting range invites would-be snipers (a.k.a. bullies) to shoot balls into an open play area. Padded obstacles, climbing structures, and narrow passageways further train these budding soldiers for future combat. Four-year-old T-Bone discovers the overpopulated jumping castle, which trains these comrades to co-exist in close quarters — or suffer significant head trauma.

T-Bone jumps around jubilantly, but then starts pumping his arms back and forth imitating a wall of mechanical fists from one of his favorite shows. While a part of me is proud that he is starting to get this whole “pretend play” thing (generally a deficit in ASD kids), the other part of me is horrified because it just looks like he is randomly trying to beat the crap out of anyone who crosses his path. Luckily, the birthday party battalion is called in for lunch so T-Bone and his little fists of fury are removed from the situation.

After having their fill of sugary treats, T-Bone and his brother Sea Bass venture back into the commando course, while my wife and I sit back to relax and eat the leftover birthday cake we have been eyeing for the last half an hour.


Then I hear the voice of an unfamiliar child saying, “Stop it! Stop It! STOP IT!”, and I know in an instant that one of mine is involved.

We rush over and find T-Bone high up in the play structure whaling away on another child. The flushed, pained, confused expression on his face — one we’ve seen hundreds of times before — tells us it’s happening again.

Another meltdown.

Which is not just a tantrum, for anyone lucky enough not to have witnessed one.

These meltdowns often appear at random, without rhyme, reason, or warning. Triggered by a real or perceived threat, they cause his world to collapse. And usually ours, too.

Into counter-meltdown mode we go. The first step is to keep everyone safe, which means I have to rush up the structure and extricate T-Bone from the situation. Sometimes we can distract and move him along to something else. On this occasion, the only thing on his mind is revenge and that means the end of our nice little outing to the play center. We don’t even collect our party favor bags on the way out.

These meltdowns are a lot like a military strike. A good deal of irrationality is involved, you never know when they’re going to happen, and afterward you think, “What did I do to deserve this?”

It must be worse for T-Bone at these times. Losing control over all your senses and faculties as a result of some unseen, unknowable force cannot be pleasant. But self-preservation, rather than empathy, is usually my first priority.

Battling all my instincts to yell at him to “SNAP OUT OF IT!” I draw upon my dwindling reserves of patience, yet again, and confront this tornado with as much gentleness as I can muster. Fighting fire with fire is folly during a meltdown. I’ve learned that the hard way, and will probably learn it again.

After the meltdown has run its natural course, he is all of a sudden sweetness beyond belief, as if nothing had ever happened.

Arriving home, still rattled from what felt like the father of all meltdowns, I need a break and allow the kids some TV time. While I am still struggling to regain my composure, a Sesame Street number called “Belly Breathe” suddenly catches my attention. Ostensibly a song to teach children to control their anger, it has as much, if not more, relevance to adults. Because while T-Bone may be unable to tame his “mad monster,” I can at least try to tame mine.

This post was originally published here.