Six Steps for Handling Aggression and Meltdowns

Do you remember the horrific story of Alex Spourdalakis with his severe aggression and meltdowns?  The full story has now been made into a documentary.

Alex’s story really hit home because our family has experienced a hell similar to the one they were living.

Intermittent Explosive Disorder

My son, Jake, had had meltdowns periodically as a child. As puberty approached his demeanor began to take on a more sinister turn at times. These violent “psychotic” episodes started as he approached his 11th birthday and gradually worsened as puberty set in. Jake would switch from a sweet, happy, amazing young man to an “I want to hurt and destroy” state sometimes within minutes and often without any apparent reason. Despite enormous efforts to keep things calm, my husband and I were black and blue and our house was being destroyed. After a desperate 5 day hospitalization Jake received the additional diagnosis of Intermittent Explosive Disorder on top of severe autism. The social and communications challenges of severe autism make it even more challenging to address the explosive disorder.

Going Through Hell

It’s hell when you are being attacked and at the same time afraid for your child’s life because be may have to be hospitalized or institutionalized. It is torturous to everyone when your child is like an angry wild animal not influenced by logic nor consequences.   You feel hopeless when every support expert or doctor you consult has little to offer.

If you’re going through hell, keep going – Winston S. Churchill

No One Simple Answer

In recent years my family has discovered a bumpy path back to peace and harmony again. I thank God daily. As Jake is approaching his 18th birthday this November, he is currently sweet and gentle 98% of the time.  When he does begin to have an episode we feel much more capable of helping him settle back down. Here, in a nutshell, are the steps we took that seemed to help most:

1.Create a safety plan

The book Outsmarting Explosive Behavior by Judy Endow was extremely useful in helping us to recognize the signs and stages of explosive behavior and increase our awareness of how to best respond. It explains what is going on for the child at each stage, and how once he/she is at the fight or flight point the behavior is beyond conscious control. At this point the autonomic nervous system instinctually goes into survival mode. The objective becomes to brace for the explosion and hopefully help the individual de-escalate back to a calmer state again so they can re-gain self-control. Even if your child cannot actively participate with the visual program the book offers, the information and brainstorming process about what does/doesn’t help at each stage is helpful in creating an individualized plan.

Often typical responses are perceived as a threat to the out of control person and unintentionally keep them in an explosive state.  Making a plan to use non-threatening voice tones, postures, and responses that the show care and respect will help the individual de-escalate more quickly.   Visuals, foods, medications/supplements, sensory needs (such as dimming lights), etc. may also help.  An on-call person (who is aware of the plan) may be needed for a female who cares for a male who is prone to attacking due to the difference testosterone can make on one’s strength.

 2. Make the environment as safe as possible

You may have to make some major home adjustments such as locking the door to the garage, putting away things that could injure if thrown or used to hit someone, putting all glass items away or covered with a protective barrier, have large pillows available to protect yourself, etc.

3. Be a persistent, curious detective

For my son, we discovered through brainstorming that he needed to eat more frequently.  Giving him regular snacks every 2 hours is something we still do to this day.  If he starts getting belligerent we start handing him food even if he is at first refusing to eat.  It is amazing the difference we have seen this have on his moods.

4. Remove MSG and other excitotoxins as well as other non-food chemicals additives from the diet as much as possible

We have seen these to be a huge trigger for aggression and possibly headaches that my son develops after eating foods containing these.

5. Learn about the medications and calming supplements available

When a human being’s body is going into fight or flight too often or too easily, that essentially means their neurotransmitters are spiraling out of balance. If going the medication route, know the side effects. Medications often increase the need for food and cause weight gain. Blood sugar issues can cause a vicious cycle.  The benefits need to be weighed with the drawbacks. A long-term nutritional balancing plan may prevent having to continually increase the dosages and add new drugs with more side effects.  We have had exciting success by learning about Dr. Amy Yasko’s discoveries at Holistic Health International  and using genetic, urine, hair, and stool testing to guide us.  Her entire book Autism: Pathways to Recovery can be downloaded for free, and the information regarding the Glutamate/Gaba balance is important information for anyone dealing with aggression to seriously consider.

6. Last, but not least, pray for answers and have faith things will improve

It is hard not to despair amidst the frustration and fear that can result from such extreme behavior.  Focus on  your love for this child and each and every sign of hope.  Autism has much to teach the world about how our amazing bodies work, how human beings can relate and be more creative and supportive to one another, and how we can all afford to open our minds to learn and grow together. Ask God to bless your journey. I pray this helps sheds some light on your path back to calmer days.

 Rejoice in hope, be patient in tribulation, be constant in prayer.

Romans 12:12