Parents: how many times have you gotten “the look” in public places… as if people were saying “Why can’t you control your child?”
The myriad responses I received ranged from “It is so stressful, we don’t even bother anymore” to “I don’t even notice because I don’t care what people think!”. It was great! You know what? I can relate to every single bit of feedback I received. I have been in all of those places emotionally and even gone so far as to second-guess or blame myself and my parenting skills along the way.
No one said this job was easy. To quote a dear friend of mine, “Parenting is not for weenies.”
I can’t count how many times I’ve had to rapidly exit a grocery store, leaving a full cart, because my child escaped and was running up and down the aisles, screaming and crashing into endcaps. I can’t tell you how many times we spent $70 at the movies only to be kicked out of the theatre before the previews were even over. I can’t recall how many times we had to leave a restaurant, paying for food that never came because of meltdowns. And don’t get me started on how I know the response time of Fire Station 5 so well
I have experienced parents tell me I need to spank or beat (!) my child, I have gotten countless dirty looks from others in public places, I have been told by security officers that I need to “reel in my kid”, and I have been called a bad mother more times than I can remember. It’s not fun. I don’t even want to get into airplane follies!
As a single parent, I don’t have the luxury of another adult when out in public to take my son outside for a sensory break, put him in a time out, or to leave him with at home so I can do the shopping alone. What I also didn’t have until the last few years, though, was knowledge and understanding of Sensory Processing Disorder, a list of key things that set my son off, and tools to help me make the right decisions about taking him out.
I know we can all share horror stories. I’ve probably stifled and suppressed most of mine BUT I thought it would be helpful for me to share what we do RIGHT now. Meltdowns these days are minimal, if not completely gone.
Know when the odds are stacked against you. Is it close to nap time? Has your child been stuck inside with no exercise? Did he just have a big, sugary snack? Or is he really hungry? Conversely, are YOU exhausted and sleep-deprived? Squeezing things into your schedule and feeling pressed for time? These are NOT good times to take your child with Autism to the store, restaurant, bank, or any other errands. It may be inconvenient, but it is worth it to wait until all the odds are in your favor so you can handle any situation from a place of calm and grounded peace. When you can respond, not react, it changes everything.
Avoid busy times. Try to go to your favorite places when they are not too crowded. So what if your schedule is different than the rest of the world’s? The extra quiet atmosphere may be totally worth it.
Understand what your child experiences. I used to just see bad behavior. Then I would try to reason with it, yell, lose my patience, bargain with it… yes, these were really effective The truth of the matter is, your child may be under assault by her senses. If you can stand a little bit of bad language, this is a GREAT video to illustrate a meltdown. I love it. Sensory Overload Simulation
You can also read one of my earlier articles, Why Does My Autistic Child Scream?! which helps explain what’s going on neurologically.
Physical exercise first. Taking 5 extra minutes before going out to toss a sandbell with your child, run a quick relay race, do some animal crawls, or just run in place can change their entire mood and energy level for your outing. Fitness creates focus, provides an energy release, and gives your child a nice self-esteem boost along the way!
Anticipate and arm yourself with supports. Bring things like noise-blocking headphones, supermarket bingo, things to draw with, snacks, or even video games if you deem them appropriate. Know where exits are as well as a quiet place to go for a five-minute sensory break if needed. Illustrate clear consequences for misbehavior prior to entering your destination, but also make it clear that breaks and time outs for his body are not the same as being in trouble! It also couldn’t hurt to have a plan B.
Look for flags. You know what it looks like when your child first starts to get overloaded. Don’t wait until the situation spins out of control before addressing it. If possible, give your child choices and encourage her to make the right ones for her. I can now ask my son, “Are you screaming for fun, or does your body hurt?” (sometimes he’s just being a boy!) I’ve had him hold up numbers to tell me where his body is on a meltdown scale – 1 being perfectly fine and 5 being totally out of control.
Compassion. It’s never easy to walk that fine line between disciplining a behavior when your child can clearly help it versus giving them support and understanding when they truly can’t. The bottom line is, we are all doing the best we can. If you think you’re frustrated by a behavior your child exhibits, imagine how he feels getting in trouble for his ears hurting or his nerve endings feeling like they’re on fire. Imagine yourself not being able to tell if you’re standing up straight or falling over, and then getting yelled at for touching the wall and not knowing why. I’m not saying all behavior is okay and should be overlooked, but seeing things through your child’s eyes (or ears, or hands) can instantly melt your frustration into compassion and assistance for your child to step into his best self!
What other public tips and tools work for you? What attitudes have you shifted that changed your experience? I’d love to hear about them!