'Suddenly our nine-year-old completely lost it and started throwing rocks at us'

Imagine having to call the police to help get your otherwise kind, funny and creative child under control because she's having a violent meltdown. Co Down man Peter McKibben describes his family's experience

Nine-year-old Abbie McKibben whose behaviour started to change three years ago when she suffered a bad panic attack
Maureen Coleman

WHEN Co Down dad-of-two Peter McKibben brought his children on a rock climbing trip a few weeks ago, he hoped it would be an enjoyable day out for his young family following months of lockdown.

But an innocuous comment by eight-year-old son Austin triggered his older sister Abbie, currently being assessed for autism spectrum disorder (ASD), and set in motion one of her regular 'meltdowns' which resulted in family members being attacked and the police called out to their home.

For Peter and wife Natalie, watching their nine-year-old daughter – who they describe as "awesome... kind, funny" and "very creative" – lose control in such a violent way is becoming increasingly difficult to handle. When her fight-or-flight response kicks in to some perceived slight or incident which upsets her, Abbie fights. Sometimes she turns her anger inwards, resulting in self-harm or suicidal ideation. On other occasions, she lashes out at her loved ones. Afterwards, Abbie is full of remorse and is often unaware of what she's actually said or done.

To help her cope, her parents are now hoping to provide her with a Safespace, a low-stimulation environment designed for people with autism, epilepsy and challenging behaviours. It provides a robust space that can be kicked, punched and head-butted and can withstand the roughest treatment. But it comes at a price of £7,500 and with only Peter working at the moment, it's too costly to afford. So the couple has launched a GoFundMe page in the hope they can raise enough money to purchase a Safespace and bring a degree of normality back to family life.

“We hadn't been out for a while because of Covid so a few weeks ago myself and a few friends brought the kids rock climbing,” Dromore man Peter says.

“On the way back down Austin, Abbie's brother, made a comment about moving house. It was just a throwaway remark about what would happen if we did move but Abbie took it seriously. She thought that we were actually moving and that she wouldn't see her friends again.

“Next thing, she just lost it. She started to pick up rocks and run at us, throwing them. We managed to get her home and luckily both sets of grandparents live nearby and came round to help. But everything escalated quickly and she attacked them as well.

“In the end we had to call the emergency services and the police. Abbie's meltdowns can last for up to eight hours and during that time she's constantly trying to fight us. We need help with 'safe holding' her. We don't like to call it 'restraint'.”

The McKibben family – Mum Natalie and Dad Peter with Abbie and Austin

Abbie's behaviour started to change three years ago when one night, out of the blue, she suffered a bad panic attack. She was hyperventilating and being sick so her parents called an ambulance. No amount of soothing from her mum and dad made any difference; she was unable to calm down. The following day, they brought their daughter to see the family GP and she was referred onto CAMHS, the children's mental health service.

To begin with, Abbie's anxiety spiked primarily at night time, leading her parents to think that she was unhappy in school. For hours they took it in turns to sit with her in her bedroom, then at the bedroom door where they could still watch over her, slowly and quietly backing out of her room.

Occasionally, during the day, Abbie expressed feeling unwell and complained of 'butterflies' in her stomach. Around this time, the team at CAMHS, who had been working with her, told Peter and Natalie they recognised autism traits and she was referred onto the ASD team.

“We had just started to manage the night-time panic attacks when her behaviour became more challenging during the day,” Peter says. "It was driven by her anxiety and during the day she was becoming overwhelmed by her emotions. It all came together in a meltdown.

“When Abbie felt overwhelmed, fight or flight kicked in. But Abbie wanted to fight and not run. At times she was really violent and not in control of herself. She'd lash out, kick us, bite chunks out of us, pulling our hair. Natalie was black and blue.

“Afterwards, when she burned out, she wouldn't remember what she'd said or done. When we told her, she couldn't believe it.”

But it wasn't just her family she took her anger out on. Abbie also self-harmed. She put her head through her bedroom door, kicked chunks of plaster off the walls and tore up floorboards. When her adrenaline was pumping, nothing and no-one was safe. Her distressed and heartbroken parents knew something more had to be done to keep the family safe.

As Abbie had been referred onto the ASD team for assessment, she'd been discharged from CAHMS. But CAMHS brought her back in again after her parents went back to them for help and she remains supported by the team there and Banbridge family intervention.

She's been seen already by the ASD team and was due to be assessed again at Easter, but lockdown put paid to that. Abbie is currently waiting to see them again but the absence of a diagnosis is making family life difficult.

“It's awful to say it, but this has become our norm now,” Peter says. “As a family, of course it's very detrimental to us. We're exhausted and since Christmas, it's all taken a toll on Austin too.

“Natalie has type one diabetes and when she gets a hypo, she's unable to cope with Abbie's meltdowns. There are times she's had to call the police for help.”

When Abbie is feeling particularly overwhelmed, she takes herself off to her room, where Peter has set up a teepee-style tent. Sometimes she hides in her closet or buries herself under a pile of blankets. This helps to soothe and calm her down.

While waiting for an official diagnosis, Peter joined a Facebook support group and learned about Safespace products for children with challenging behaviour. He did some research into their products and found one which he thinks would be perfect for Abbie.

“The Safespace is padded and soft so kids can punch it, kick it, throw themselves against it and they won't get hurt,” he says. “It even comes with its own bed.

“When we have to safe hold her, we become triggers; we become targets, so this way, she can go into her own space and vent and burn herself out without hurting anyone. If she gets really angry and is being violent, we can put her in it ourselves and zip it up. There are big windows in it so we can sit outside it and watch over her, while she kicks and punches.

“Abbie is a very smart child and I don't like to hide things from her. I showed her the Safespace and asked her what she thought. She said it looked class and she gets to pick her own colour.”

Abbie, who has changed primary schools and has settled in well, coped positively during lockdown, Peter says. In a way it helped that she wasn't having to go out much or deal with social interactions. But like any dad, he wants his little girl to have as normal a life as possible and believes the Safespace will help.

“I just want her to be safe. I want my family to be safe,” Peter says. “It's been a very challenging three years and the sooner Abbie gets this Safespace the better. I really believe it will make a huge difference to her and our family life.”


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