Tantrum Walking

For a while, we could never walk past our local shopping strip with Rémi. There's something about that string of shops that just sets him off. He would collapse on the ground, crying, every time.

This is typical of autistic kids. The psychologists at Western Autistic School, where the kids go to school, have talked about it. There's a routine that develops in the kids' heads, and they get upset when the routine is broken. Maybe we went into one of the shops one day and Rémi now wants to go into it every day. Or maybe it's the train boom gates at the bottom of the hill: he either gets upset that they're not on now, or he's upset that they are on and we're not taking the train. Who knows what's going on in his little head. At the time, the boy could barely ask for a cup of water whenever he was practically dying of thirst. He certainly wasn't about to explain to us why a walk past our neighbourhood fruit shop, milk bar and newsagent caused an insurmountable rage which could last over an hour.

With Rémi, this was typical behaviour. He loved trains, but he would scream and cry as though he was being tortured whenever we went on a train. He loved the school bus (an Australian rarity), but he would take an hour to recover from the daily post-school tantrum. Anne reckons it's because the bus has an automatic door which opens and closes like the doors of an elevator, and after his first or second day of school the driver opened/closed it twice to make Rémi happy, and he's been pining for the double open/close ever since.

The problem hit its peak during the first break from Rémi's first year of school. In Australia, the summer school holiday is only one month long and kids get three additional 2-week breaks throughout the year. Since I only get four weeks of holiday each year, the kids get more "staycations" than proper holidays. During the first such break, Anne found she was dealing with these tantrums on a daily basis. She couldn't stay home all day, but every outing lead to a tantrum.

Once, Gaston ran away while Anne was dealing with the crying, screaming wreck. Fortunately, instead of running across the busy street, Gaston had run into a hair salon and plopped himself down in one of the big hairdressing chairs with his big sticky ice cream. The hairdresser, a middle-aged gay man, tried to talk to Gaston. I think he must have seen Anne dealing with the situation just outside and thought he could help by keeping Gaston inside. It did help. I can just imagine the scene and I wish I'd been there to witness it: a grown man who has probably not spoken to a child in years, trying to talk to a non-verbal six-year-old who had walked right into his workplace. Hilarious, except for the drama unfolding outside.

When I'm with Rémi, I have a particular way of holding his hand which forces him to stand. It doesn't involve just pulling him up by the hand: that would break my back and probably pull his shoulder out of his socket. My method involves getting my right arm under his left armpit and using leverage to hoist him up by the hand and arm. It was slightly inspired by all my years of jiu jitsu (decades ago), but mostly inspired by the psychologists at Rémi's school highly recommending this "hand-holding" method. He'll still cry and scream, but he's forced to stand and to go where I go.

For a while, I used this technique to go on what I called "tantrum walks". Rémi and I would go for walks up and down the shopping strip, repeatedly, just to practise walking during his tantrums. With time, he would learn to cry and not collapse on the ground. Then I would step things up a notch by stopping or turning around while walking. He hates directional changes or changes in pace: the tantrum would escalate, but he'd have to walk or stand with me. As weeks passed, the tantrums subsided. With more time, so did the crying. We could eventually walk past the shops without a drama.

One day, I came home from work extra early (thanks boss, if you're reading this) to see what could be done about the daily after-school drama. To stop the bus tantrum, I made him stay on the footpath (=sidewalk) while the bus closed its door--his habit was to run up on our veranda and start crying as soon as the bus left. Breaking the routine by keeping him on the footpath seemed to hold off the crying for a little bit, then we went for a walk around the block when the crying eventually started. This seemed to hold off the big meltdown on that particular afternoon. Anne continued to break the bus-veranda-crying cycle by making him stay on the footpath over the days that followed. After a few weeks, the meltdowns stopped altogether.

With time, the anger dissipated. Over the months that followed, trips to the local grocery store stopped being dramatic and Rémi learned to enjoy train rides again. Tantrums got pushed to the end of the day, when he would flip out most nights around bedtime. With time, the nightly routine cheered up, too.

Anne has learned that she can't handle both boys without sacrificing her own health, little by little. We have signed up for something called "respite care". Normally, this would mean a government-funded babysitter. But Anne uses the service as an aide, an educational tool. With a helper, she can continue taking the boys on outings during the school holidays when I'm at work. Their last stay-at-home school holiday was relatively drama-free.

Tantrums seem like a thing of the past now: he has cheered up completely (provided we stay away from a couple of parks which he hates). I don't know if it's because of the work we had done, because of the work he does at school, or if he had merely gone through a difficult phase and he would have snapped out of it on his own without any intervention. All I know is that we can take the train, go to some parks and go to our local shops. And Rémi is a much happier boy than he was a year ago.