Why meltdowns happen

This article was previously published and shared with us by Daisy Chain, a charity that supports autistic people and their families

Meet Max…

Max is a Y5 student in primary school.

This morning, Max had to come a different way to school because they were digging up the road. By the time they’d gone round the diversion, Max was late for school.

Max hates being late. He hates to walk into class when all the other children are milling about. So he waits in the cloakroom until they’ve all gone in. Mrs White said it’s OK for him to do that.

When Max steps into class, Mrs White isn’t there. There’s a stranger standing at the front with the Head teacher. Mrs White has gone on a course today and they have a substitute teacher, Mrs Grey. But Max doesn’t know this because he came in late. He sits down when the Head teacher tells him to, and wonders when Mrs White will be in.

Mrs Grey announces that the class spelling test will be first. Max has been trying really hard with his spellings. He has practised them at home. Mrs Grey starts to read them out, but they’re not in the right order. Max can feel a knot in his stomach and writes out the spelling test he has learnt in the right order. Two out of ten and told he will have to try harder. He didn’t even get a smiley face and Max likes stickers.

At break time, Max goes out into the playground. He’s got an apple for snack, but as he is eating it, a girl playing chase bumps into him and it drops on the floor. One of the boys shouts “football” and kicks it across the playground… It ends up in a puddle. Max goes to get it and gets his feet wet. He hates being wet, so he goes back into class and takes his shoes and socks off. Mrs Grey almost trips over Max, who is sitting right in the doorway of the classroom. She tells Max to either put his wet things back on or to put his pumps on. He tells Mrs Grey that it is not P.E yet it’s literacy next.

Mrs Grey glares at Max and suggests that perhaps Max would prefer to sit outside the Head’s office. Max is quite relieved about this; it’s nice and quiet in the corridor. He puts his pumps on but they don’t feel right without socks, and all he can think about is how scratchy they are on his feet.

On the way out of the classroom, he sees the girl that bumped into him in the playground. He pushes her back and she tells the teacher that he pushed her for no reason. Mrs Grey walks over to Max. She’s wearing really strong perfume and he wants to retch. When she asks him why he is pulling faces, he says it’s because she smells.

Mrs Grey marches Max down the corridor and tells the Head that Max is being naughty and very rude. Max tells her she is lying. The Head tells Max to sit there until he feels he can behave.

After half an hour outside the Head’s office, Max is feeling much calmer so he decides to go back to his classroom. Still no Mrs White. He looks round to see what he is supposed to do and sees some boys spinning their pens so he goes and watches them cause it looks interesting.

When the bell goes for lunch, Max puts his hands over his ears and runs to the classroom door to be first. Mrs Grey tells him off for pushing and makes him wait at the end of the queue. When he goes to get his lunchbox he can’t find it, it’s not with his coat where he left it.

When the Mid-day Assistant manages to calm him down, she arranges for him to have a school dinner instead. He has to sit on a different table in the hall and the smell of other peoples dinners makes him feel ill. He looks down and notices that the beans are touching the potatoes so he can’t eat that now. Dry food shouldn’t touch wet foods. Everyone is talking and the noise of cutlery and scraping of chairs is overwhelming; even the playground is better than this.

Max goes back to the cloakroom and lies on the floor with his coat over his head. The floor is nice and cool and he starts to feel calmer. He makes the Mid-day Assistant jump when she walks past him, and she chastises him saying “you scared me to death Max!” Max is really worried about this because he really likes her and doesn’t want her to die, but she carries on walking as though she was OK. He follows her round the playground just to make sure.

After lunch Mrs Grey tells the class to get into pairs. Max sits on a table with two other children, and they’ve already paired up. He doesn’t know what to do… Mrs Grey asks for anyone who’s not sitting with someone to put up their hand. Max doesn’t realise she’s talking to him – he’s sitting with two people, so he doesn’t put his hand up… When Mrs Grey raises her voice and asks why he wasn’t paying attention, it all becomes a bit of a blur… and Max has no idea why he is being told off again. He wonders if it is because he made the Mid-day Assistant die.

The bell goes at the end of the day, and Max goes out to find his Mum.

“Did you have a good day at school Max?” asks his Mum.

Max has spent all day masking and ‘holding it all in’. Think of Max as a bottle of pop. As he goes through the day the bottle gets shaken each time there is a trigger, with the pressure building up as their stress and anxiety increase.

Max managed to hold it all together whilst at school but when Mum picked him up, he had a meltdown – the pop was released from the bottle in one go. Many parents will be familiar with the Pop Bottle effect – the delayed meltdown which follows a day of triggers and masking/camouflaging. ∎

Dyspraxia and I

When difference isn’t obvious

by Lee Moore
Neighbourhood Support Team Inspector
Avon & Somerset Police

In most circumstances, difference is plain to see… a clear injury, an obvious condition, the colour of someone’s skin. Occasionally though it is hidden – there doesn’t seem anything particularly different about that person. An example of this is Developmental Coordination Disorder (DCD), commonly known as dyspraxia.

My work colleagues know me from my many years in Avon & Somerset Police, however one thing people may not know about me is that I have dyspraxia.

So, what is it, and how does it affect me?

Dyspraxia is a neurological disorder that affects your movement and coordination. This results in problems with balance and difficulties with gross and fine motor skills. (More of that later!) Thankfully it doesn’t affect your intelligence, otherwise I would be really up the creek, but it does make daily life more difficult. It affects your coordination skills, such as tasks requiring balance, playing sports or learning to drive a car – and your fine motor skills, such as writing and using small objects. Dyspraxia can also affect speech. It’s a lifelong condition and is usually classed a disability.

The causes of dyspraxia are not really clear. It is thought to be caused by disruption to the way in which messages from the brain are transmitted around the body and something to do with certain neurons that transmit messages not developing properly. As is typical with neurodivergent conditions, I didn’t know I had it until well into my 40s, nearly 20 years into my policing service! In fact my story is similar to others with neurodivergent conditions: I was researching dyslexia as it was thought my son was dyslexic, and then I stumbled (get it?) across dyspraxia. I went through each symptom and thought “That’s me to a T” (the light bulb moment!) And to cut a very long story short, I approached A&S Police who were brilliant – they got me tested and I was diagnosed, which put all my past issues into context.

Well – I say I didn’t know before I was diagnosed, but I always suspected I was different. I used to love sport but I was terrible at it, so uncoordinated… I couldn’t play tennis, I couldn’t (and still can’t) hit a golf ball. I was not just rubbish – it was worse than that, I was awful… I did sometimes play football for the school (I wasn’t an automatic pick!) and scored one of the best goals ever, my mates still talk about it now – right foot volley from the edge of the box, top corner, the keeper never moved… Unfortunately it was our keeper. It was the best own goal and the worst clearance you’ve ever seen, all in one go! I remember doing athletics and everyone laughing at how I ran (an electric eel in a spin dryer as one wag described it). I was called lots of names, ‘rubber man’ being one of the kinder ones, but I battled through and tried my hardest not to let it bother me – although sometimes it did.

Luckily I was quite popular – one of my strengths for whatever reason with this condition is I have empathy with people – I understand them and I’m always out for the underdog. I supported my friends and always gave advice (some of it unwanted!) To deal with the tough times and some of the cruel jibes, I often used humour, and those that know me well know I still try and do that. I have never been able to do ‘complicated’, my brain struggles to process stuff sometimes, and certainly when there’s too much stuff. Grey is not a colour I’m comfortable with, I do black and white – this can mean I’m quiet in meetings for instance whilst I work things out, and then I can seem forthright as I get a little frustrated with the ‘noise’ and just want to get to the point! Some people think I’m quiet, hard to read, stand-offish, even shy – but all I’m doing is thinking, processing, working it all out and preparing what to say… I’m also really clumsy and I do get very tired (I will explain that one later!)

I’ve always had a strong sense of right and wrong, fair and just, and whilst I get frustrated with myself sometimes I stay determined, some say to the point of being stubborn. That is why I ended up in the police service: wanting to help, a sense of justice, doing the right thing and having a structure all appealed to me. (Lack of structure and being disorganised are traits of someone with dyspraxia – I have elements of these but I am aware of it now so work really hard to try and keep on top of things.) There are also the unwanted travel companions that have followed me throughout as a result – namely low self-esteem, particularly when others seem to do things so easily when I struggle – anxiety, frustration and occasionally depression. However since my diagnosis, I now understand why I sometimes feel this way. I still have the occasional bad day but I am able to manage a lot better with medication and my support networks: family, friends, gym and Netflix (thank God for Tiger King and Mrs. Maisel during lockdown!)

“You’re not dynamic, too quiet, not interested… Actually you are none of those things, you may be tired but you are processing, thinking and you’ll only add value when it is necessary.”

All of these things affected me throughout my whole career, without me quite knowing why… I got to Inspector, had a couple of setbacks and then it became a bit of a struggle… Sometimes I thought I was stupid, sometimes that I couldn’t cope, and other times “Why do others get this when I don’t” – it all very frustrating and occasionally upsetting without quite knowing why.

Since diagnosis I have been able to put everything into perspective and put mechanisms in place to deal with some of my symptoms. One of the biggest problems is tiredness: A study has said that someone with dyspraxia uses 10 times more energy to carry out the simplest task than a non-dyspraxic person – talking, reading, writing, hitting that golf ball… I mentioned earlier it’s to do with the neurons and transmitters in the body passing messages around the nervous system – mine are jumbled up and need processing before I carry out the task. It just doesn’t happen naturally, and this takes more energy and extra split seconds of time. My batteries can be running out 10 times quicker which makes me very tired sometimes, affecting my demeanour and sometimes my confidence, often when it is most needed. I can cope now though – I know when to step out of situations, I drink loads of water to stay hydrated and snack throughout the day to keep my energy levels up.

A&S Police has made great strides in dealing with disability and issues of difference, which is brilliant… But that hasn’t always been the case! The problem with a condition that can affect your energy levels, your demeanour, how you process information and present in meetings for instance, can lead to negative perceptions about you if it is not understood. You’re not dynamic, too quiet, not interested… Actually you are none of those things, you may be tired but you are processing, thinking and you’ll only add value when it is necessary. I, like some of my neurodivergent colleagues, have had the classic “you’re not Chief Inspector material” when applying for promotion – in fact, not long after my diagnosis I was told by someone that I would need to “grow a different head” to get promoted. Now try action planning that?!

I have some other stories from the past that would make your toes curl but as said, that is in the past… My last few years have been pretty good – there is a much better understanding, we no longer pay lip service to disability issues and we take a proactive and positive approach to difference. Working in the A&S Neighbourhood Directorate has been great, and I highly recommend it – fascinating work and a quality Senior Leadership Team.

So what’s the point of me banging on? Well, it’s simple really: just understand that sometimes, what you see on the outside, good and bad, isn’t the whole story. Just have an understanding of what impact neurodivergent conditions such as dyspraxia can have on an individual and the struggles they may bring.

And, most importantly: focus on strengths. The positive skills and benefits anyone with difference can bring: the empathy, the determination, the ability to get to the issue, the lack of ‘grey’ that leads to good decision making.

Let’s embrace our values and value our staff – and let’s focus on what people can do, not what they can’t. (Though I still can’t hit that bloody golf ball!) ∎

This blog was originally published on the Avon & Somerset Police intranet for World Values Day – it is reproduced here with kind permission of the author

Updated police autism guide released

The National Autistic Society has released the latest version of their guide for police officers and staff, updated September 2020. The document contains simple ‘do’s and dont’s’ for dealing with autistic suspects, victims of crime and witnesses, and examples of best practice.

The NPAA would like to extend our thanks to the NAS for providing the opportunity for us to contribute to this important piece of work, which will assist in our aim of training all frontline police officers in recognising and working with autism.

Click on the image to link to a free PDF download (email address required). Click here for the NAS online shop.