child sitting in parking lot next to mom's car

When a Woman in a Walmart Parking Lot Came Over to Us During My Son's Meltdown

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What I learned from a stranger one summer’s day in a Walmart parking lot still sticks with me six years later.

I had on occasion witnessed parents with children having meltdowns out in public and thought I’m glad that’s not me. I would try not to look and give them some privacy to help their child. I would move on with my shopping, happy my three children were behaving, or at least not throwing a “tantrum.”

Then I had my fourth child. With all the love and joy he brought me, also came challenges. By the age of 2 he had been diagnosed with sensory processing disorder and autism spectrum disorder. I became the parent of the child having meltdowns.

When my son was 4 years old, I had to take him with me to Walmart one day. I knew I was pushing my luck. We had just come from the dentist, which for any 4-year-old kid can be difficult but for a child on the spectrum, it is a lot of sensory processing to have to deal with. My son had done OK. We had made it through the dentist appointment. Just one more stop at Walmart, then we would be home.

Things did not go as planned. My son started to have a meltdown in the checkout line.  Normally if this happened I would have made a quick exit from the store and gone back another time. But I couldn’t do that today. My husband was picking up my daughter from camp six hours away. She had broken her foot badly, was in a non-weight bearing cast with crutches, and the cast was not waterproof. The one thing my daughter really wanted to do the minute she got home was shower, and it was my job to get the supplies. I needed to get her a chair that could fit in our shower and plastic and tape to cover the cast.

I endured the looks of disapproving people as I slowly inched up in line as my son was on the floor between me and the shopping cart screaming at the top of his lungs. I made it through the checkout and was able to pick up my son and get out the door. The screaming and flailing continued as I tried to walk to my car. His shoe came off at some point, and I left it in the middle of the road. I just had to get him in his car seat.

My son had Herculean strength during this meltdown. His little body was arching and twisting, and as hard as I tried to calm him and just get him buckled in the car seat, I couldn’t do it. He was screaming, and I was struggling, minivan door wide open for all to see.

That’s when I saw this women coming towards me from across the parking lot. I was sure she was going to tell me she had called the police or at least tell me what a horrible mom I was. But instead she simply asked if she could help me. As I felt the tears well up in my eyes I said yes.

It took the two of us five minutes to get my son buckled in the car seat. As we were struggling together she asked so politely if my son was on the spectrum. I replied yes. She told me how she too has two boys on the spectrum. She had been in another checkout line but had witnessed the meltdown in the store. She told me a man behind her in line had said, “What that kid needs is a good spanking.” She told me it made her so mad that she turned and told the man, “ You have no right to judge them. That boy could have issues you don’t know about.”

I was thinking to myself, wow not only is this women helping me, but she is defending me! She continued on to say that she told her husband, who was waiting in their car with her two boys, that she was going to come over and help me because she could just tell my son was on the spectrum and that I was going to need help.

After we had secured my son in his car seat, she helped put my items in the back of my car as I went to retrieve my son’s shoe. She ran back to her car and came back to my car with her name and phone number. She told me to call her if I ever wanted to get together with her sons. I thanked her profusely, and we went our separate ways.

She became “Melissa-Walmart” in my address book. We met a few weeks later at a playground and laughed as I told her I’d still be in the Walmart parking lot if she hadn’t come over to help me. Her kindness that summer day has stayed with me.

I learned that for all the hurtful looks and comments I would get over the years, there were also people out there who understood the challenges we faced. For the times I saw other parents with a child melting down and I just looked the other way, I could do better. I too could ask if they needed help. Empathy and compassion can go a long way for everyone because you just never know what someone is going through till you have walked in their shoes — especially the shoes that end up in the middle of the road.

Image via Thinkstock.

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Dear Autism: I Wouldn't Be Who I Am Without You

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Dear autism,

Allow me to introduce myself. I’m Liz, and you came into my life at the age of 3. Sometimes it felt like you held me back, but you didn’t. I graduated high school and college, and I got a job at Walgreen’s that I never thought I could get because sometimes you make things overwhelming. But it’s nothing I can’t overcome.

Sometimes you make me feel like a burden to my family and friends because there are certain skills that are hard for me to grasp. But they always remind me how they love me for me and accept me for who I am. Not to mention, autism, that you teach them something new every day.

But autism, we’ve had our cloudy days. I’ve been introduced to bullies, people who did not want to get to know who I am. They shut you down and looked at you as a weakness. But again I overcame it, and now I’m teaching people about you and how you show me the world. Most of all, I show people that you are another learning style.

Sometimes you overwhelm me if my schedule has been changed or I’m hit with bad news, but you know what? I get through my tears and move forward. I learn.

Autism, to me you are exciting, happy, overwhelming, frustrating, and you teach me the most important lessons in life. Thank you for being a piece of my puzzle I call life. I’m thankful to have you. Sometimes people ask me if I wished you away, and the truth is no, because then I wouldn’t be who I am.

Take care, autism, and I’ll see you on this amazing journey we call life.

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On the First Anniversary of My Son's Autism Diagnosis

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To the parents anxiously awaiting that first doctor’s appointment, hoping all those “idiosyncrsies” you see in your precious child, are just that. You’re longing to hear that everything will be fine — that it’s all in your head. That you’re just being overprotective, overreacting or jumping to conclusions.

I was you 365 days ago. 

One year ago, I sat in that sterile neurologist’s office regurgitating information about my son while he threw blocks, cars, and anything else he could get his hands on in the corner of the room.

One year ago, words I never thought would describe my life as a brand new mother were thrown my way — autism spectrum disorder, lifelong care, endless therapy, and thousands of dollars out of pocket. I sat there, attempting to take it all in as I listened to a man, who had just met my sweet son, tell me these things.

But today, I’m drinking a glass of wine and skipping my evening workout. I’m going to sit in front of my TV and “Chuggington” on Netflix while I hold my precious little boy at my side. Because we’ve survived. If you would have asked me a year ago, I’m not sure I ever thought we would make it to the one-year mark unscathed.

To you parents whose children have just received a diagnosis — although this is new territory you’re venturing into, if there’s any advice I wish I received at the beginning, it would be…

Don’t Google. Google is not your friend. The day my precious baby was diagnosed with autism, I immediately went home, locked myself away in my bedroom and Googled. A plethora of information came up in my searches. It was information overload.

It’s OK to feel sad at times. One of the hardest things about this autism journey is getting past the sadness you may feel and the expectations you previously held for your child’s future. It’s OK to feel a twinge of sadness as you see other children your child’s age jumping through hoops in terms of milestones. It’s OK to cry, it’s OK to take time for yourself. It’s OK if you don’t know what to do yet. It’s OK to search for what works best for your family. It’s OK to spend some time by yourself for a little bit, because sometimes that is what you need to find solace, as long as you realize when it’s time to brush yourself off, get up and be an advocate for your child.

Not everyone you meet will be kind. Not everyone you meet will be sympathetic. Not everyone you meet will understand the challenges that can come with raising a child who has limited verbal skills. Not everyone will understand how hard it is to go out in public and not have an anxiety attack or cry right along with your child when they’re having a meltdown. When they struggle, you struggle. When they hurt, you hurt. When they feel overwhelmed with the world, you can’t help but feel the same. You wish more than anything that the world would just understand your child. The stares. The whispers. The unkind words. Try not to let them hurt you too much, although easier said than done. Not everyone knows, understands, or cares about your experiences. Use those unkind and challenging instances to educate those around you.

Some people will all of a sudden become “autism experts.” Post-diagnosis, the floodgates of advice will open. Most mean well, but some don’t. You may be told your child “looks normal.” You’ll be asked if “you’re sure.” You will most likely get the spiel that vaccinating your child “caused” it — or that if you would just give them this or that, your child will be “cured.” Your child will be compared to uncles, brothers, sisters, cousins, friends with autism. Your journey may be vastly different from those around you. What worked for one person may not work for someone else. Remember, every child with autism is unique.

Find your tribe. When the world feels like it’s spinning and you aren’t able to stand still, your tribe will be there to keep you grounded. They will understand the struggles, the meltdowns, the feeling of being alone. Find them. Love them. Cry with them. Thank them for being so freaking awesome in your life. Seek out any and every avenue to meet others faced with the same journey.

Don’t discount any milestones. I remember the joy I felt the first time my son looked at me when I called his name. Or the time he used sign language correctly, after eight months of practice, to communicate his need of wanting more juice. I think we both jumped up and down the day he pointed to the fridge and attempted to say the word “apple” — meaning he wanted applesauce. You will never take those seemingly small moments for granted — and you will feel on top of the world, each and every time they occur. So many times your child will surprise you and exceed and surpass your expectations.

I know it might seem as though you have a huge mountain to climb, and you’re afraid because you can’t see what’s on the other side, but I’m here to tell you that things will be OK. I was you one short year ago. I remember being devastated and terrified of this new life. I won’t tell you it’s been easy. There are more days than I care to admit when I feel sadness thinking of the challenges my child may face later in life. There are more days than I care to admit when I wish I could understand that little boy’s world.

But over the past 12 months, we have been able to find some amazing therapy and a place that feels like home. A place that has allowed my child to thrive and progress, more than we ever imagined possible. We have pulled strength, courage, and determination from places we never knew or even realized existed on days that were especially challenging. We have immersed ourselves in autism groups and become advocates for a child who is still learning to communicate. But don’t let that fool you, because even without words, this little boy is sharing his love of life with the world.

I feel hopeful and confident about our future. I may not have all the answers yet, and there may be more twists and turns on this adventure than I would like, but I realize our life isn’t over. This is just the beginning of our new and beautiful life.

Follow this journey on Life Through A Different Lens.

Image via Thinkstock Images

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I Learned to Celebrate Small Moments After My Daughter’s Autism Diagnosis

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I didn’t even know that I took the little things for granted. After all, I knew what it was like to have a hard life. My two adorable children were already living a life 100 percent more stable than mine. They weren’t sleeping in cars in the winter or eating every three days. So, of course, I thought I was a good mom. But there were so many things that I was about to learn on our journey, and thank God that I learned them before I missed more.

You see, our journey into parenthood wasn’t too bad.  We had our first adorable red-headed daughter later in life. I was already 28. She was cute. She was smart. She was funny. Everything about her being in our life was amazing. 

Then a nearly four years later, we added another sweet angel to our lives. Who knew we would have another red-headed adorable child — this time a son. And, well, he was cute. He was smart. He was funny. He hit all his milestones and did everything like his big sister — right on time and sometimes early. That’s what kids do. They grow up, learn to crawl, learn to walk. So what was the big deal? I didn’t take first haircut photos or celebrate the tooth fairy in grandiose style like some of my peers. I always said it was because I was practical. What’s all the fuss about?

Then we got our third miracle. She wasn’t like the others. So small and fragile. Long dark brown hair. A quiet baby. Honestly, I was relieved. One of the children was more like their dad, the strong silent type. At least that’s how I began the rationalizations. 

Well, milestones started getting missed. But hey, that happens right? And then the doctor started wanting very specific dates about when she crawled, when she walked, when she said her first word. But, you see, why would I track such things? Why would I celebrate such things because they just happen, right? 

Well, no. No, they don’t always just happen. And nine and half months pregnant with our fourth miracle, I sat in a room as they analyzed what my daughter could do versus what she should do, and it became very apparent our daughter wasn’t hitting milestones. I mean she turned 2 years old a month before the appointment, and she had never said Mommy. I tried not to take it personally. All kids get there in their own time. She didn’t say Daddy, either. Well, frankly, she didn’t say much. She counted all the time, in English, Spanish, Korean, Mandarin and Portuguese. Yet, she didn’t say Mommy. But she will get there in her own time, right?

The woman doing the exam was very sweet with our daughter. She was loving and patient as she tried to get her to do things I knew she could not do. Patient and kind as she asked me the questions I didn’t have the answers for while I rubbed my belly hoping the new arrival would come soon. 

Then this woman who had all the compassion in the world for my dear daughter looked at me and said plainly, “Your daughter is at least moderately autistic.”

Wow. Just like that, huh? Just like that our whole lives change? 

Then I did the thing no parent should ever do — I Googled “autism.” I Googled it because I had never heard of it before. I didn’t know anyone that was autistic or had an autistic child.

And, by golly, just don’t do that to yourself. I read link after link and study after study on how my miracle was never going to do this and never going to do that. I read page after page of stories about how my child would be treated by others. I read page after page of all the various early intervention options.

I cried. 

I read about all the milestones my daughter wouldn’t hit. All the milestones that I never celebrated with my first two children. I read more about parenting in those first months after her diagnosis than I had ever read in the first six years of being a parent.

There is a silver lining to this story, though. While I beat myself up over all the things I hadn’t celebrated with my other children, I realized the amazing blessing I had been given. While learning to break down tasks into the smaller steps my daughter needed to learn her way, I started to celebrate small moments. The moments in time, not just the milestones.

I began to be more aware of the true miracles that happened to my children each day. I started to celebrate. Celebrate all of my children. Celebrate the lost tooth — all of them. Celebrate drinking from a straw and then a glass. I was able to celebrate things much smaller than crawling and walking. My life became so much fuller. 

On August 8, 2013, my dear daughter was given an autism diagnosis. Yes, this day changed our lives, but this day also gave me the tools to help my sweet angel to be the best her she can be. And it gave me the tools to be the best mom I could be — to all my children. 

Autism allowed me to learn to celebrate life because life is a miracle. All lives are miracles. I take a few more pictures now. I give a million more hugs, and say “I love you” a billion times a day. 

I learned to celebrate the “cans” and break the “can’ts” into smaller chunks until they become cans. While I do not wish anyone to have this be the catalyst for change in their thinking, I wouldn’t change my sweet angel for anything. She has autism. Without it, she is not her. Without it, we are not the family we are now. Without it, I would have kept missing the everyday miracles in my life.

Autism didn’t end our lives. It was just the beginning of a new path on our family’s journey. I intend to enjoy the ride as best I can. 

Lead photo source: Thinkstock Images

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The Secret My Son's Autism Diagnosis Revealed About My Life

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In this wild thing called life, I’ve come to know that overcoming is becoming. But to overcome anything, we must first invite it in for tea. If we want to experience a truly authentic life, we must be able to look into the crevices of our heart and soul and lovingly embrace every facet of our being, the light and the dark. Which leads to the question, why would one want to live an authentic life? I know I have asked myself that question on several occasions.

To me, living an authentic life is being the same person you are when you’re alone as you are when with family, friends, acquaintances and in public. It’s being transparent about your needs without expecting others to fulfill them. It’s owning your process and being the driver in your life. I believe in being dedicated and committed to always being the best version of ourselves, and waking up every day with the intention of living a life grounded in gratitude and inspired by something bigger than ourselves. Authenticity is about sharing our life experiences, not for the reactions or responses of others, but to create a space for others to embrace a part of themselves they may not have otherwise.

My childhood was nothing like the picture-perfect experience that was portrayed to the outside world. I felt like I was always living a double existence –-the one I experienced inside and the one I struggled and worked so hard to show on the outside. I always felt very different from others, and remember telling my mom on countless occasions that I felt like I didn’t belong, that something was wrong with me. Before I could articulate it to her, however, my mom had already endured years of searching –- asking for guidance, answers and help, always being told it was a phase and would most likely pass. Her maiden voyage with parenting found her with a child who was fully conversant with appropriate grammar, inflection and facial expressions at 10 months, well before she was even walking. By the age of 5 my mom had me evaluated by a developmental child psychologist because she didn’t know how to parent a child who could outwit and outsmart her, but freaked out over tags in her clothing, only wore specific socks inside certain shoes, refused to eat anything other than Cheerios and needed it to be very quiet almost all the time.

Thankfully my parents poured belief, love and confidence in me all day every day –- without them I have no doubt I would not be where I am today. But I still felt lost, scared, angry, terribly sad and extremely frustrated. I was bullied throughout my entire school career, straight through college –-physically pushed around, harassed and told everything from “You’re so weird, no wonder you have no friends” to “What’s wrong with you?” “You make things so hard,” “Stop being so dramatic,” and “I’ve never known anyone so needy.” Even various professionals I sought guidance and validation from would say things like “You will never reach your fullest potential,” “Your anxiety will always limit you,” and “it’s probably best for you to settle.” I listened to what everyone else had to say for so long, I started to believe it must be true. I compared myself to others and judged myself harshly. I started to see myself as weak and incapable, a burden to those who cared for me. There were times in my life when I thought it would be best if I was no longer alive.

Years passed, I got married and along came Myles, my son, who launched me into my parenting experience and way outside my comfort zone. I found myself a parent to a child with significant special needs overnight. I was lost, scared and grieving. It was not a loving invitation into this new life, a soft nudge or even a little push –– I felt as though my life as I had known it had ended. It threw me onto a path I walked without knowing where I was going or how I was going to get there. All I knew was that there had to be a better way.

It often seems like the most painful experiences end up being our greatest teachers. This was no exception, and in retrospect was exactly what I never knew I needed in life and love, what I like to call my rebirth or awakening. Along this journey I have discovered ways to revolutionize our health, mentally and physically, changing the way we feel and allowing ourselves to become more in tune with what makes us tick. I have learned more about myself in these past three years than I have in the 30 before.

As I navigated our path with Myles and autism, I tried everything he did just so I would be able to speak to the experience –- I never wanted him to feel like he was doing this alone. And as we tried one thing after another, I found myself growing more and more intrigued with myself. I began reflecting back on my childhood, as if searching for clues. I began to focus more on being present than getting it done, and prioritized pouring belief and love into myself for the first time. As each day passed, something new seemed to present itself, as if in direct response to my daily surrender to “reveal thyself”.

This past winter, as we adventured to Disney World, I was shocked to discover that I had a more challenging time than Myles managing the over-stimulation. That instantly set off flags within me, and raised all sorts of old feelings and memories. I tediously practiced lovingly inviting each one in, learning even more still about my inner workings. Slowly I was able to lay to rest each harmful story, belief and judgment I had held onto so tightly. I gradually peeled back the armor and protection that had allowed me to remain hidden, never actually revealing myself. It was both frightening and liberating. I felt that feeling in my belly that resembles butterflies –- the one you get when you just know you’re on to something. I’ve come to recognize this as life leading you, and those butterflies are our calling to follow.

Two weeks before my 35th birthday, I found myself recounting my life’s story with intricate detail as I sat on a couch in Boston, wringing my hands and sweating in places I didn’t even know existed. At the end of the visit I heard the words I had both dreaded and silently longed to hear, the words that instantaneously made my life make sense. I was overcome with gratitude, love and compassion. Pride flooded in, leaving me feeling truly humbled and more connected to God and a greater purpose for my life.

As I drove home that night, I felt the constriction that naturally follows any expansion –- the icy grip of fear beginning to encroach from the perimeter of my thoughts, almost leaving me gasping for breath, suffocating the present moment and the power that resided in it. My fear was tethered to the balloon of judgment that does nothing but drag us along, never allowing us to truly find our feet and develop our roots. In an instant, I let go and found my feet. I let go of the self-judgment, the comparison and the fear of what other people would think about me. I let go of the “what ifs” and the possibility that people wouldn’t be able to look past my diagnosis and really see me. I surrendered to a higher calling and decided once again that living an authentic life is always worth it. This life is about so much more…

This is about a girl who became a woman and learned how to love herself.

This is about having the courage to lay your heart out there with the hope that it inspires someone else to do the same.

This is about never letting anyone or anything box you in or keep you small.

This is about no longer denying pieces of ourselves, but rather embracing every facet and letting our light shine out through the cracks of our imperfections.

This is about being brave enough to fully commit to living a life where we love first.

This is about embodying the change I wish to see in the world -– where we embrace everyone for who they are and celebrate our uniqueness without fear, judgment or comparison.

This is my story about being diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder.

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I Am Autistic. I Am Exhausted.

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At 37 years old, I have lived and worked in London for 17 years.  I am female, reasonably educated, maintain my own home, car and job. 

I am autistic.

I am exhausted.

Like some other women on the spectrum, I was not diagnosed until I was in my 30s, and understanding and coming to terms with that knowledge has taken time. It has taken time to unravel the course of events through which my life has been woven and time to understand the challenges that have led to health and emotional crises.

Three things it is important to understand:

  1. Autism is not a mental health condition, it is a neurological and therefore physical disorder.
  2. Autism does not mean a lack of difficult challenges in some people, simply that they may be more masked.
  3. There is an 85 percent unemployment rate amongst working-age autistic adults in the U.K., according to the Big Business Boost.

Like much surrounding autism, there is a general misconception of how the spectrum works. When we look at a spectrum in any other context, we tend to depict it as circular; take the color and light spectrums as examples. However, when people describe the autism spectrum, they seem to have the image of a straight ruler, moving people up and down a scale dependent on “how autistic” the outside party deems the person they are interacting with to be. As an adult who is considered “high-functioning,” this often leads to unhelpful external input regarding the difficulties I experience on a daily basis. People often see a mental health disorder and not a condition that can have physical characteristics.

As one of the 15 percent of autistic adults who have maintained work throughout adulthood, the exhaustion of the daily sensory overload of working in one of the world’s most frenetic cosmopolitan hubs, navigating the personal interactions and the long working days have taken a dramatic toll that I am only now beginning to understand. 

Sensory overload I can only describe as akin to being trapped inside a Faraday Cage with electricity being shot at you that the cage is not protecting your brain from, with the neural pathways triggering and misfiring electrical responses that cause your mind to retreat as a physical trickle-down occurs to the rest of your body. The result of this is commonly described as meltdown, looking to an outsider like a temper tantrum, but actually the reaction to an explosion of internal pain caused by an electrical release from all of your nerve endings at once.

Thirty-seven years of dealing with this while navigating the world has led to monumental burnouts, where I haven’t been able to function for weeks, meltdowns of such epic proportion that they have led to accidental overdose and hospital stays just because I realize now I was trying to find any kind of relief. The loss of friends, the loss of jobs, occasionally what feels like the temporary loss of sanity.

The reason I write this is that it is important for people to understand that an independent, functioning life as an adult on the spectrum is possible. I work in offices in jobs that require negotiation skills and vast amounts of interaction, I create policy, I work with data, I occasionally people-find for authors. I use the subset of skills that autism has enabled in my brain to find the stories in patterns. What is vastly important is understanding self-care and how to manage any challenges so they don’t over-ride you. That is why advocacy and increased understanding of how to live are so important.

There is a story as old as the world that tells us that, as humans, we are here to connect; only connect. Sentient beings, it is built into our DNA to link with each other, build relationships, families, community. And when you look at the science of it, I suppose that makes sense. All of the evidence is out there, written into the building blocks of nature and of the universe itself. There’s a magnetism to the space we inhabit, to the world around us, that draws everything together. Whether it be Einstein’s Gravitational Waves or the Golden Ratio, the ecology of connection and the ways in which we fit together are scattered and hewn into every particle of every organism across the entirety of space and time. And so it happens that connection begets connection and in turn begets life. We are born of the connection between our parents, into these families and communities and in turn build our own relationships, families and communities, down through history. A constant thrum of connection and creation. While it often seems that autism is a disorder embodied by disconnection, what I now understand is there are ways for everyone to fit; it is just a case of shuffling the pieces and making the small adjustments until we do.

I would like to work towards a world where neurodiversity in the workplace is fully understood, and employers can make adjustments for this. I would like to live in a world where I don’t get home from work at the end of the day and have to sit in a darkened room for hours. I would like to live a life where I can go out in the evening during the week or on a Sunday evening and not be totally wiped out. 

But until that point, now that I understand, I just need to do whatever tiny things I can to improve understanding and hopefully eventually improve life for others on the spectrum.

Image via Thinkstock

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