Ninety-six years ago this week, Samuel W. Alderson, an American physicist and engineer was born. He invented the crash-test dummy used to test the safety of cars. In 1968, he produced a dummy (called the V.I.P.) for automotive testing with built-in instruments for collecting data, and which had articulated joints and simulations such as synthetic wounds that oozed mock blood.
Parents of children with autism who have frequent severe meltdowns and behavioral outbursts might wonder why a “crash-test dummy” hasn’t been developed to simulate how an average parent would react to the emotional assault of enduring sometimes hours of their child’s behavioral outbursts, complete with aggression, property destruction and self injury. Maybe the data collected could help make the meltdown crashes less devastating or prevent them altogether.
Engineers would design the meltdown test-mannequin so it would be able to secrete cortisol and other stress hormones, increase its simulated heart rate and blood pressure, secrete stomach acid and develop bowel cramps. After the “crash” was over, the meltdown mannequin would have the ability to develop a pounding migraine headache, complete with scintillating scotoma, the zig zag flashing lights one sees as the dreaded headache unfolds.
Unlike the automobile crash test dummy, the meltdown test mannequins would have the option of coming in pairs, a father and a mother. After the meltdown crash is over, sensors would measure how much arguing ensued about whose fault it was and how they should have handled it differently. Finally, the test mannequins would go to bed wondering what they had done wrong and how they could better help their child.
Automotive engineers know a lot about how to build safety features into cars to minimize damage to passengers. Children with autism have already been engineered when they come to us. For whatever reason, some of their usual social safety features are missing. As a result, we need to do a great deal of post-production tinkering to reduce emotional crashes. Behavior therapists, speech and language pathologists, special educators and pediatricians can work with parents to minimize, and sometimes eliminate those devastating emotional and behavioral wrecks that rend the family fabric with devastating consequences.
Each time I sit with a family as their child sobs, screams and bangs her head, or scratches his face or bites his mother’s arm, as parents struggle to try to contain the situation, my heart aches for them and their child. We don’t, and shouldn’t think like automotive engineers, but we do need to do our best to think clearly about the reasons it necessary for this very lovely child to do these extremely destructive things to him or herself and their family.
Maybe we don’t need a meltdown test mannequin after all. Maybe we can take concrete steps to do what is necessary to reverse the pattern which is so destructive to families, which requires enormous patience and perseverance, for these behavior patterns have typically emerged over many months and sometimes years, and will not go away quietly in the night. Standing side by side, we can do this, really we can.