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What to Do (and Not Do) When Your Child Sees Mine Having a Meltdown

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We special needs parents are used to our children being used by other parents as examples and teachable moments. It happens frequently, and I’d like you to stop.

“I’m so glad you know how to behave in public,” you whisper to your child. Only it’s not always a whisper. I hear you loud and clear. Even if I don’t hear your words, your disapproving glances convey your message.

Every time I’m out in public, I’m on high alert for you, and I carefully consider what I’ll say when you try to use my son’s seemingly bad behavior to teach your child about what’s acceptable and what’s not. Sometimes I’m able to explain to you that things aren’t always what they seem. But most the time I forget my script because I’m too embarrassed to talk to you.

Evan, my 9-year-old son, has autism. He doesn’t look any different than his typical developing peers — until he has a meltdown. Then he looks more like an out-of-control toddler than a third-grade school boy.

It drives me crazy when parents use Evan’s meltdown as an opportunity to show their child how not to behave or to reinforce their child’s exemplary behavior. While your intentions may be good, there’s a better, non-judgmental way to teach.

Instead of comparing behavior, ask your children why they think the other child is acting that way. Most likely, your child will say that the kid is being bad. An open-minded parental response is to point out that maybe the tantruming child just got hurt, is scared because he thought he lost his mom or any number of alternative explanations. While this may or may not be the reason for the child’s meltdown, at least you’re teaching your own children that they shouldn’t be so quick to judge because things are not always as they seem.

I can guarantee my son isn’t upset because I won’t let him have a cookie or because it’s time to leave the playground. More likely, he’s bothered by a sight, sound or smell that you or I barely notice but to him is an all-out assault on his nervous system.

Almost anything can set off a child with autism, from the sound of a fly buzzing to the smell of a banana. Some kids are bothered by the slightest change in routine. I know a girl who insists on always using a particular door to enter her school. If that door happens to be locked, she screams, cries and refuses to go through another door. Without knowing the whole story, a passerby can come to any number of incorrect conclusions.

My other favorite situation is when children are told, “It’s not polite to stare,” and their questions about another person’s looks or behaviors are sidestepped or redirected. I see this or hear about it mostly from friends whose kids have noticeable physical differences such as cerebral palsy or Down syndrome.

Your kids are curious, and that’s a good thing. They aren’t judging. They don’t mean any harm. They’re questioning something new. By avoiding their questions you’re actually showing them there’s something wrong. Instead, use this as an opportunity to educate your children; often, a simple explanation will suffice.

When my kids were younger and a friend would ask about their brother’s unusual behaviors, their response was simple but telling. “His brain works different,” they’d say.

Please don’t feel bad if you can’t answer your children’s questions. We don’t expect you to have all the answers. How are you supposed to know exactly what cerebral palsy, autism or Down syndrome are?

While I obviously can’t speak for everyone, I think most parents don’t mind answering questions about their child’s differences — especially if those questions are from another child. We know you may not be equipped to answer them, and we’d rather see you ask. Then, when your children meet someone with a disability or someone who looks different, they’re less likely to be afraid.

So next time your children want to know why someone is in a wheelchair or why he talks a certain way, why not take them over and begin a dialogue? You could start by saying, “Hi, my name is Jen and this is my daughter Jessica, and she just asked me about your son’s wheelchair (or she was wondering about his hand flapping).” By doing so, you’re not asking a direct question but instead starting a conversation and allowing the parent to respond in a way most comfortable for them. If you don’t want to approach them, you could say, “He was born that way, just like James was born with autism or Nathan was born with allergies.” Then you could add something your children can relate to such as “I wonder if he likes to play with Legos too.”

So please, next time you see a child with “bad” behavior or physical differences, it’s OK to use him or her as a teaching tool. Just do it the right way.

This post originally appeared on Special Ev.

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Originally published: May 1, 2015
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