Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Ignorance Is Not Bliss

We’ve all been in a situation where we are in a public place, usually a restaurant, and a child in the booth nearby is having a “fit”. We probably have thought to ourselves, “Man those parents need to control their kids.” However, if that child is autistic, or has some other behavioral issue this may be a situation that is uncontrollable.

I have to confess that this was my thought prior to having Konner. There are probably not many of us that haven’t felt that way if we are honest.

So how do you deal with these situations? This is one of the most raised topics during our Parents of Autism meetings and on the facebook page. In this column I want to hit on some of these issues, and I hope that it will help the parents deal with these situations better while educating the ignorant (I use this term in the best possible way). After all ignorance is not always bliss.

Let’s start by looking at what these so-called “fits” are. Known as meltdowns, a child on the autism spectrum can easily be over stimulated by his/her surroundings. This can be an almost instant reaction with no warning signs, although often times there are some signs. What you have to realize is that children on the spectrum often have heightened sensitivity to their senses. They also can’t filter out things the way that we as “neurotypical” people can. When we sit in a restaurant we only see, hear, and smell certain things.  Someone with Autism will not be able to filter the noise from other conversations around them, the air conditioning vent above their head, or the peeping of the cash register 20 feet away. They also won’t be able to tune out the people moving around in the background, the flickering of the fluorescent lights above, or the cars passing by on the road out front. The smells will bombard them like a swarm of bees to their nose. This is only three of the five senses.

It’s easy to see why these things can cause a child to panic and become upset. But, how is a meltdown different from a fit? I found some good comparisons of a meltdown vs. a fit on that I will share.

1. During a meltdown, a child with autism does not look or care if those around him are reacting to his behavior. A child having a tantrum will look to see if their behavior is getting a reaction.

2. A child in the middle of a meltdown does not consider their own or others safety. A child in the middle of a tantrum takes care to be sure they won't get hurt.

3. A child in the meltdown mode has no interest or involvement in the social situation. A child who throws a tantrum will use the social situation to their benefit.

4. Meltdowns seem to move along under their own power and wind down slowly. With a tantrum, it will end suddenly when the situation is resolved.

5. A meltdown gives the feeling that no one is in control. A tantrum will give you the feeling that the child is in control, although they are pretending they are not.

6. The meltdown usually begins when a specific want has not been permitted and after a point, nothing can satisfy the child until the meltdown has run its course. A tantrum is thrown to achieve a specific goal and once the goal is met, things return to normal.

So what do we do as parents when your child has a meltdown?

The first thing is to make sure they are safe. Remove them from a situation that could cause them harm including glass, sharp objects, or anything they could throw at others. Try to get them away from whatever was over stimulating them.

Don’t try to reason with them. If you talk you are just adding to their overstimulation and causing more problems. This is often hard because we as parents want to help our child, and instinct says to console our children.

Of course avoiding public situations as much as possible is good, but we know that we can’t allow our children to be reclusive all their lives. In fact, that public interaction is good for them in short periods. It will help build up their tolerance for the unwanted elements surrounding them. Just remember that they may be ready to leave long before you are. Never plan to stay, and always plan to leave – at least that’s the way I look at it.

I think this excerpt from the same website is appropriate:

For some reason, in public, many people feel it is their duty to point out (sometimes subtly and sometimes loudly) the mistakes you are making in raising your child. This is a common occurrence for parents of challenged children and especially if the child "expert" has no children. Just remember, stay calm and handle the situation in a manner to best fit your child’s needs regardless of the disapproving looks or comments. You can't change the world but you can affect your child’s feelings and learning experiences which is far more important than being concerned about those outside your circle of influence.

This is good advice, and often easier said than done. However, your child’s wellbeing is more important than your perception to some stranger. Some may chose to educate the world on autism. This is a good thing as well if you do it tactfully. The last thing you need is a confrontation in public which will do no good for the child.

If you do chose to explain to them that your child is autistic there are two ways that seem to work best (and could cause them to be a little embarrassed). The first is to simply say, “My child is autistic,” and walk away. The other is a great method that is easily available online. There are websites that offer cards that say:

Please be understanding. My child is not a bad child and I am not a bad parent. My child is having a meltdown which is common in children with Autism. You can’t imagine what it is like to live with this every day, and your stares and whispers do not help. Please educate yourself before you judge. Parents like me need all the support we can get. Please visit this website for more information:

These are for sale, but you can also create your own at home.

These are just a few suggestions to help out. I hope they do, and I hope that someone unfamiliar with Autism has learned to be more tolerant of the issues we as parents are dealing with.

Disclaimer: I am in no way claiming to be an expert. I’m just a father who is trying to learn as much about Autism as I can to help my child. I hope that you all can learn from me, and I from you. I ask anyone who has questions or comments about something I have written, or autism, please contact me at I will try to answer questions as I have time, and if I find it interesting enough I may touch on it in my column.

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