Putting the Pieces Together

When M was two, a spilled glass of water could send him into a meltdown.  We didn’t have a diagnosis yet, and this behavior was one of the early red flags.  His response to a spill (or an object accidentally dropped or broken) was a combination of panic, terror, and rage.  He would scream “Can you still drink it?  Did you not drop it?  You didn’t drop it!  Can you clean it?  You could still use it!” — describing the world as he wished it were, before the accident that threw him off balance.

Sometimes he would try for “do-overs,” by replaying the actions that led up to the catastrophe:  “You want to go back in the living room and come into the kitchen again!”  Often he would flail his arms, sweeping other objects off the table and escalating the meltdown.  His whole body would shake until his teeth chattered.  Sometimes he would hit himself in the face.

We would try to reassure him that it was just an accident, that we could refill the water glass, clean up the spill, tape up the torn page in the book.  We tried to stay calm, to comfort him.  But we were worried by what seemed like a huge struggle to cope with small surprises or setbacks.  My sister joked that “toddler screams ‘clean it!’” was my top Google search in 2009.

After the diagnosis, we were advised by some therapist or EI teacher to try to minimize these incidents by not drawing attention to them — ignore the reaction; quietly clean up without too much talking or fuss.  Sometimes it worked; sometimes it didn’t.  After learning more about autism, I began to understand the panic as a response to a combination of things:  a loud noise, a disruption in routine, an unexpected and confusing display of emotion from an adult (spills at our house are often followed by “goddammit!” or “motherfucker!”), and, on some level, the uncomfortable recognition that we are not always in control of what happens — that there is disorder in the world.

For about a year, my husband and I would freeze in our seats, prepared to leap into full combat mode if there was a minor spill at the dinner table.  Eventually this kind of meltdown became less frequent, but I still get a rush of adrenaline every time I drop or break something in front of my son.

One of the worst incidents happened more than a year ago, when I dropped a glass bottle full of ricemilk as we were walking upstairs.  M stared at the broken pieces in terror, sobbing “Is it still a bottle?   It’s not a bottle anymore!  Could you still drink it?  You could go back downstairs and come up again and then it would still be a bottle!”  I cleaned up the mess, filled a new bottle, and tried to calm him down, but he stayed hysterical for nearly an hour.

I thought of this day when I saw the HBO special on Temple Grandin.  Temple asks her aunt how she will know which room is hers, and they agree to tape a sign to the door that says “Temple’s Room.”  Later, a draft blows the sign off the door, and we watch Temple panic as she takes in this change.  The film makes it clear that the room has become unfamiliar and sinister now that the sign is gone — it is no longer her room, and this is confusing and frightening.

It occurred to me that M’s panic over spills and small accidents could be less about the loud noise or the surprise, and more about the horrifying idea that an object can cease to exist.  If he does not recognize the broken pieces as “still a bottle,” then when a bottle breaks, it just disappears.  Honestly, it seems like a pretty reasonable thing to panic about.  This is, after all, the root of all human religious thought — our discomfort with the idea that people can simply cease to exist.  We create elaborate fairy tales about the afterlife and divine intervention because death is terrifying, and there are no do-overs — time moves in only one direction.

I don’t actually think my three-year-old’s tantrums are all about existential despair, or evidence of his recognition that there is no God.  But I do think there is more to it than just shock at a loud noise.   And ignoring the reaction might not be the best way to handle it.  The idea that an object can just disappear out of the fabric of space-time is upsetting, and his response doesn’t seem so surprising or unreasonable when I look at it that way.

M has come a long way in the last year.  More often than not, he takes spills in stride — with no reaction other than a typical preschooler’s desire to play in the mess.  Last week, his brother dropped a plate off his highchair tray, and it broke in three pieces.  M’s eyes got huge, and he started to cry, “Is it still a plate?  It’s not a plate!  It’s not a plate anymore!”

I started to clean up, and I said, “Yes, it’s still a plate.  It’s just broken in pieces.  Just like your eggs — they’re cut up in pieces, but they’re still eggs.”

M was quiet for a while. I finished cleaning up, and we went back to eating our breakfast. I was keeping my eye on L to make sure he didn’t dump anything else off his tray.

Several minutes later, I turned around to look at M and realized he was still staring at his eggs, with a huge smile on his face. He was whispering to himself, “Still a plate. The eggs are still eggs. They’re just cut up.”

Sarah Schneider blogs at Kitaiska Sandwich.

Putting the Pieces Together appears here by permission.

[image via Flickr/Creative Commons]

on 03/17/11 in Autism, featured | 1 Comment | Read More

Comments (1)


  1. Anonymous says:

    I am a woman diagnosed on the spectrum and I’m having a grown-up version of this over a relationship that ended recently and abruptly. Or maybe it did’t really end?

    Like your son, I keep asking questions (are we really broken up?), and doing do-overs in my mind.

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