Whether you are the parent or the audience, there is an awkwardness and discomfort when dealing with a child in public who is pre-meltdown, mid-meltdown, or just hysterical.
As parents, we plan an exit strategy. Some of us even do this before we get there. But sometimes (or most of the time) it happens when we least expect it. When we didn’t plan. When there isn’t an easy escape route in site. We find ourselves wondering:
Do we really need these groceries?
So what if I paid $300 to be here.
Will the restaurant charge us if we leave before the food comes out?
There are three incredible strangers out there who have helped me and showed extraordinary compassion during my daughter’s meltdowns. These three occasions have been remembered months (and years) later. I wish I could thank them again.
Thank you to Princess Aurora at Walt Disney World.
I’m not going to sugar coat this — our 2017 Disney World experience was rough. Our daughter had sensory breakdowns in every single line.
Every. Single. Line.
She bit herself.
Threw herself on the floor.
Kicked the walls.
I hoped she would enjoy the intimate princess tea party I had booked months ago. Months before I even knew she had autism. But that non-refundable $300 tea party at Grand Floridian didn’t go well for us.
About twenty minutes into the tea party, she started to clench her fists.
Then she fidgeted.
Then there were tears.
I tried to figure out WHY she was bothered.
Was it because they didn’t reenact the movie?
Did the smell of decadent sandwiches and scones repulse her?
We were in the most magical place in the world, why wasn’t she happy?
Her crying quickly escalated when she threw her food at me.
Then she was on the floor.
Then she was screaming.
And then she bit me so hard that my arm gushed blood. It hurt more than anytime she ever lashed out at me.
I think I blacked out with grief because I cried uncontrollably into my hands as I sat on the floor next to her. I couldn’t do this alone. I couldn’t manage my 35-month old child alone.
What was wrong with me?
I remember opening my eyes to the lobby and Ally was spinning in circles while the manager brought out our things and gave me a glass of water and a first aid kit.
That was the first time I ever believed it when I told someone my daughter had autism.
She danced and spun contently in the lobby for a while. As I tried to convince her to leave, Princess Aurora came out and she danced with Ally. She cared enough to join my daughter in her world and brought her a crown and a necklace.
Ally adored her. Told her not to prick her finger on a spindle. Blew her a kiss goodbye.
That princess was so kind and made our day.
I didn’t feel like we completely missed out. She got to experience special magic, just not the way that I had planned.
That couple behind us in a line
We were out somewhere. I want to say a theme park or boardwalk but I can’t remember exactly where. We were in line to meet a character. Ally loved meeting characters. She never wanted to take photos with them though. She just wanted to chat with them and be friends. It was charming and sweet…when she was younger.
That line was long. We had waited about twenty minutes or so when Ally head-banged against the metal bars and kicked me in the knee. It hurt and I bit my lip in pain.
“Ally you hurt me!” I snapped.
Because sometimes we snap.
Getting attacked hurts.
She clenched her little fists and her face turned red. She screamed. I knew it was about to happen when she took her shoes off. She always took her shoes off right before a meltdown.
That was her warning signal.
The shoes came off.
Shit was about to go down.
The sun was beating on us. I tried to touch her, to soothe her, to calm her down. But she hit me and screamed. I looked around for the exits. But how could I even leave a line like that? It was so crowded.
That was when this couple intervened.
They were young and sweet. They didn’t even have kids.
They said hello to Ally.
The woman showed her a stuffed Giraffe they won in a game booth.
They let her hold it.
She gave it a hug and smiled.
He made voices and had it talk to her.
I thanked them as the line moved. For once we didn’t have to leave.
They continued to entertain her for at least 5 minutes until we got to the front of the line. She was distracted enough to make it through.
They were amazing and taught me how truly compassionate some people could be. I never forgot it.
Waitress at Joe’s Crab Shack
We had just started taking Ally out to restaurants.
We thought this one would be fun since there was a playground outside and a giant shark on display.
She loved that shark.
She loved it so much that she refused to sit at the table to eat.
She just wanted to stare at the big plastic shark that hung from the ceiling at the entrance.
We got her to color for a few minutes.
Played videos on her iPad.
Talked to her.
But she was fixated on that shark.
She knocked over my drink and screamed. My husband and I looked at each other.
Do you think we could leave since the food hasn’t come out yet?
Her brother looked devastated because he begged us to take him out. And when we had to leave places, he suffered.
We started to pack up and our waitress ran over to our table. She had a shark toy from the bar and handed it to Ally.
She told her that the shark is special. That it’s just for her.
I’m not saying that she was good at that restaurant or that we shouldn’t have left when we had the chance to. The shark toy was a distraction from her fixation to get to the one in front of the store. It distracted her for just enough time so we could eat and get out of there. I couldn’t believe that waitress was so kind and receptive enough to notice out struggle.
Sometimes the smallest gestures can help a parent de-escalate a child.
Have you ever been a stranger in the audience who wanted to help but didn’t know if you should interject or just mind your business? Does that parent even want help? Will they accept it?
For me, the answer is Yes. I will appreciate you trying.
Even if you fail.
Your kind gesture will be noticed.
Even if I say I got it. That I’m fine. It’s all under control.
Parents will always say we’re fine.
We don’t need help.
I think we have trained ourselves to not ask for help. It’s become a default response when we go into autopilot mode.