Autism: How I defused a scary meltdown unscathed

Our family was having dinner one Sunday evening when Matthew, who has autism, became distressed because his potatoes were touching his meat. My husband Peter, who was tired after pruning trees all day, told Matthew in a loud voice “Don’t be ridiculous, just eat your dinner.”

Matthew yelled no, that he was the boss of his food, and picked up his plate and threw it across the room. Peter was ready to lunge out of his chair in anger, as were Matthews two younger brothers, but instead they stayed put while I walked my sobbing son to the backyard for a talk.

Although it took tremendous self control, I talked to Matthew quietly even when he flared up irrationally, (I’m like a weed whacker! If I get too wound up I need to throw my food!) until he was calm-even remorseful. Peter, Andy and John came outside when they could see the coast was clear, and Matthew apologized to his dad, who also apologized.

Another meltdown is defused.

Once Matthew was in bed, and after I finished my cold potatoes and downed my wine, Peter and I debriefed. Meltdown defused-but could it have been avoided?


There is an acronym used by recovering addicts, H.A.L.T. , that applies to parents of special needs children. If kids (or parents) are Hungry, Angry, Lonely or Tired, be aware, and be flexible.

“I should have more flexible”, said my husband, “but it is SO HARD!”

“I know, I know,” I responded in a soothing voice.

Sometimes being a good wife and mother means being a good actress.

Need more “meltdown” strategies? Check out NO MORE MELTDOWNS by Jed Baker





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About the author

Laura Shumaker is a nationally recognized writer, autism and disabilities advocate. Her essays have appeared in many places, including the New York Times, CNN, NPR, and in a popular autism and disabilities blog for The San Francisco Chronicle. She’s the mother of three terrific sons, and her oldest son, Matthew, is the subject of her book A Regular Guy: Growing Up with Autism.


  1. Spectrummy Mummy says

    I agree with your husband- it is so hard. Even after a lot of practice, I find patience is always in short supply.

  2. says

    I had read the HALT acronym in an emotions anonymous book one of my grandmothers had years ago and have been trying to remember what each letter stood for. Thanks for including it here. and – congrats for not only diffusing the meltdown, but being a good wife, too.

  3. says

    This is a story I relate to all to well. I am more likely to respond like your husband, though I am trying to learn to be more flexible. You are so right about H.A.L.T., and I sometimes think it applies even more to us parents!


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