Caroline spent roughly an hour of one recent afternoon confined to her room sobbing, “I want pretzels. I wah-hant pretzels”.
It would be funny if it weren’t so common.
This is the downside of Asperger’s for us. The fit has nothing whatsoever to do with pretzels, although Caroline would certainly argue otherwise. This is about sensory overload, and it happens pretty much every time we introduce her to something new. This time, it’s a combination of the Orlando vacation and ballet camp. She’s been in ballet for three years now, but this is her first summer experience. It’s a three-hour long program three days a week, and in addition to dancing, the “campers” do crafts and watch movies. Sam goes, also, but his group meets Tuesdays and Thursdays to her Monday-Wednesday-Friday gatherings. Anyway, I think it was the movies that had her on edge the other day, because those have always been a trigger for her. But it could be more gestalt and encompass the whole vacation experience and the change from her normal ballet routine. Whatever the case, she came home happily singing “Échappé out, échappé in,” pointing her toes as the feet came together and moved apart and her arms scooped most gracefully. Then, almost without transition, she was arguing with Scott over the pretzels. She has this thing she does where she’ll nibble the salt off the pretzels and skip the actual consumption of the underlying bread product. Or, if she thinks we aren’t looking, she’ll stick her hand into the nearly empty bag and grab a whole handful of salt and eat it. Plain. Now, I enjoy pretzel salt eaten one crystal at a time, too. But never by the handful, and I always eat the whole thing in the long run, not just the sodium chloride topping. So her debate with Daddy was concerned with her unwillingness to actually eat the pretzels she was busily sucking on. By the way, we’ve had her tested. As far as we know, she does not have any dietary deficiencies, and there isn’t any underlying nutritional need driving this behavior. Of course, she eats so much salt that it’s really hard to say how accurate the tests might have been. From what I’ve seen, it’s not even about taste for her. It’s the texture. She likes how those tiny crunchies feel in her mouth and between her teeth. It’s the only food she’s found that will allow her to press her teeth together almost completely, without actually touching the top row to the bottom until the crystal crumbles. I’ll see her sitting on the couch with a bowl of pretzels and this odd grinched up face and know she’s crushing a salt crystal in slow motion. We wouldn’t complain if she only did this sometimes. Or if she generally ate the pretzels as well. But she doesn’t. She’ll go months without a problem, doubtless eating her fair share of secret salt, but still consuming the other things she’s been offered. And then she’ll hit a spate of licking all the pretzels and leaving them scattered around the house absent mindedly. Or she’ll come to the table starving and try to eat nothing but pretzel salt. Which was what happened after ballet camp. Not only was she in a state of sensory overload, but she was also completely irrational with hunger. Bad combination. She melted down when Scott tried to offer her other foods or get her to at least eat something besides the salt on the pretzels she had chosen. Eventually, he had to take the top half of the child while I wrestled with the bottom half so we could truck her off to her room for the lengthy “I want pretzels” serenade. Then, as fast as it had started, the meltdown stopped. I could go in and comfort her, and we could get her to eat her lunch. There was a bad moment when she learned there were zero pretzels in her immediate future, but Ro-Gurts changed her attitude, and she ultimately ate two servings of everything (noodles, cottage cheese, Ro-Gurt, and buttered bread). She was starving. Any kid as hungry as that could have melted down. But a neurotypical kid would have been likely to regain slow control of the emotions while eating. Caroline, in contrast, had to be completely calm before she could even approach the table again. If she had still been at the hiccup and sniffle stage of her meltdown, the whole scenario would have spiraled back down as soon as she found out I had cancelled the pretzel pass. We’ve had similar scenes in museums, stores, and schools, and there were a lot of them at the Y while she was learning to swim. Each meltdown is its own entity. Some tactics work all the time. But Scott and I, as parents, have to be hyper-alert to what’s going on so that we enact the right strategy and do it together. Sometimes, the right thing to do is distract her, as when the random stranger suddenly showed her a picture of a lizard on a digital camera. In that case, the woman was probably trying to make sure we weren’t kidnapping the screaming child we were manhandling into our car, and she’s one of the people who has used a respectful approach. She just popped up out of nowhere and said “Do you want to see a picture of a gecko?” and got Caroline completely entranced. A few minutes later, she explained that her grandson has autism and that the photo trick sometimes worked with him. We appreciated the intervention, because, quite frankly, when I see a screeching flailing child fighting to free itself from some adult, my senses go into mom-alert, too. I listen for words like “I want my Mommy”, afraid that I’m watching a child being stolen, but also aware that I’m probably just seeing a temper tantrum or meltdown. While I don’t particularly appreciate the rude people who either come over to glare daggers at us or send over random security personnel, I’m willing to endure it if it means just one child in danger will be saved. I have friends who hand out business cards that say “Hi, my son has Asperger’s syndrome” and explain a little about sensory overload and meltdowns (and that the only way to get past the overload is to go through the meltdowns). It’s just a byproduct of the syndrome. And, as I’ve noted before, our family is lucky. Caroline is extremely high functioning and has a loving, outgoing personality. She’s going to grow into an independent adult, and will quite likely fulfill her childhood dream of becoming a marine archaeologist. For us, these moments are just bumps in the road. But that doesn’t make it any more fun to drag her off to a quiet bathroom or fitting room in the middle of a department store, or to stand making eye contact with Scott while we heave her down the hall to her room. Autism is a mixed bag on any given day, and while Caroline is lucky to have more ups than downs, it’s important for us to be aware that the downs are out there, and our job as parents is to help her land softly when one of them trips her.