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How I Realized My Pride Was Holding My Autistic Son Back

flickr / Trevor Pittman

The following was syndicated from Quora for The Fatherly Forum, a community of parents and influencers with insights about work, family, and life. If you’d like to join the Forum, drop us a line at

How do you handle a child with autism when he has a meltdown?

My 10-year-old son is autistic, and he has meltdowns often enough that I have to deal with this on a regular basis. But the advice I’m about to give you has been a tremendous help in dealing with that.

First, an example that happened recently.

I asked T to come help me with the dishes. He took one look at the table and immediately started to lose his cool. We weren’t in full meltdown mode here, he was just expressing his displeasure in a nonverbal way with a kind of screaming grunt that he does when he starts to lose his cool. I wasn’t happy about his defiance. I thought he was just trying to avoid work. This is my usual reaction to this kind of behavior when I ask for something, I’m sorry to say.

However, after a minute, I told him to step away for a moment, and that he didn’t have to do the dishes.

Then after I gave him a minute to cool down and regain his voice, I asked him what was wrong before when I asked him to help me.

“The dishes are stinky!” Ah. That’s what was wrong.

“Well, help me put the clean dishes away then. You can do that, right? They’re not stinky.”

And just like that, he went along with it.

I took the advice of the young men at Asperger Experts when they say that autistics are generally far more sensitive to certain stimuli than neurotypical people are. Individual stimuli will vary. Asking my son to do anything with “stinky dishes” is like asking him to endure a waterboarding or to touch a red hot iron. He’s going to panic, he’s not going to be able to think rationally, and he certainly isn’t capable of talking about it. Even more interesting is that his reaction to this will also vary. Some days he’s fine with it, other days some seemingly minor odor will almost make him gag. Or it’s some other sensation entirely – loud noises or the wrong texture. So I can never really be sure what’s wrong from moment to moment.

Most important is that he needs to back out, get away from the thing that’s bothering him, and then he can talk. Just because you and I can’t perceive the “danger”, doesn’t mean it’s not real to him.

What I used to do, before I learned this trick, was to be more stubborn than he. All that accomplished was getting into epic fights with him. Because he sure as hell wasn’t going to touch that hot iron.

Ernie Dunbar is a writer. Read more from Quora below: