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If You See My Son With Autism Having a Public Meltdown, Please Don't Do This

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We usually catch meltdowns early enough to remove my 12-year-old from the sensory environment that may result in an autistic meltdown. However, he is sometimes triggered unexpectedly. To the casual onlooker, it probably resembles a massive temper tantrum, but it is not the same thing. My son truly cannot control himself and this is not the time to reason with him.

Although the vast majority of people are understanding and empathetic to our situation, I have had many experiences with people whose reactions to these meltdowns have been, shall we say, less than helpful. So here are some suggestions of what not to do. All of these are based on real reactions I have seen while I manage public meltdowns with my boy:

1. Please don’t try to connect with me.

While I truly appreciate your understanding heart, I really cannot sit and chat about your nephew who also has autism. I am on high alert trying to protect my son, store property or other people from getting hurt. It is impossible for me to engage in a discussion about the challenges your loved one also faces. I know your desire to connect with me comes from a good place, but right now is just not the time.

2. Please don’t offer me a tool to discipline my boy.

This happens almost every time we experience a meltdown in public. I know this is usually done in jest, but it really is not that funny, and the message you are clearly communicating is that my son’s behaviors are the result of my failure to discipline him. So no, I don’t need your cane, your paddle or your stick. I don’t even need your offers to, “Take that kid out to the shed,” for me. If these are your suggestions, please button your lips and just keep walking.

3. Please don’t play 20 questions.

I get it. It isn’t every day that you see an 12-year-old having a meltdown. I don’t mind if you need to ask why he is having one, but please don’t keep peppering me with questions.

4. Please don’t coach me through the situation.

Even if you are a professional behavior interventionist, unless you have experience with my son specifically, don’t tell me what I should be doing. In the entire five minutes you have had to observe and analyze my son’s behaviors, I doubt you have come to understand him better than I do.

5. Please don’t get between me and my son.

Seriously. He isn’t going to respond to the shushing and petting of a stranger, and you may get hurt.

6. Please don’t offer him candy.

While bribery can be a powerful tool in the arsenal of parenthood, this is not the time for it, nor will it make the meltdown go away.  My son has a very keen emotional memory, and his meltdowns are very emotional for him — candy is not the solution.

7. Please don’t gather to watch.

This seems like social propriety 101, but we don’t need an audience. Believe me, I am already feeling mortified. Please, don’t make it worse by forming a crowd. If you must watch, could you do so somewhere out of sight so I don’t even know you are doing it?

8. Please don’t share your passive-aggressive comments.

I get it. You feel we have destroyed your peaceful shopping experience. I am deeply sorry already, I don’t need to overhear your comments about, “this generation of entitled children who manipulate their parents like this,” as you pass by intentionally within earshot.

Public meltdowns are such a challenging part of our autism journey. I have discovered they bring out the best and the worst in the general public. While I have highlighted a few of the less positive reactions here, some of the most beautiful examples of caring have happened amid these experiences. A simple word of encouragement can help ease the tension. One understanding mom simply whispered, “Keep fighting the fight. You’re doing fine.” Such simple reassurance is all it took to bolster my spirit to endure the public eye of scrutiny.

Follow this journey at Bright Orange Balloons.

Getty image by MarkPiovesan

Originally published: May 28, 2019
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