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Why going out in public with an autistic child is a challenge

The little boy thrashes in his seat at the small, quiet diner, whipping his long blond hair across his pale face. Strangers watch as his mother tries to soothe him without touching him, alarmed that she seems unconcerned that he might fall or hurt himself. Still, people try to be respectful, averting their eyes from the scene. 


The boy stretches his leg as far as it could go, hitting a full glass of water and causing it to spill all over the table and the floor. The server silently walks over, wiping up the water without a word. The boy’s mother whispers, “I’m sorry,” and the server simply smiles back. 


The boy’s name is Matthew, and he’s 8. He was diagnosed with autism two years ago. 


Before Matthew


Matthew’s parents are Renee and Anthony. Before they had Matthew, they were travelers, jetting off to Europe once a year, camping several times in the summer at various parks throughout the country, and discovering as many strange and unique places as they could before they decided to have children.


At 42 and a first-time mother, Renee had been warned her life would change drastically once she decided to have children. “When you’re an older mother, you’re quite aware of what you’re giving up, although I hate saying it that way,” Renee admits. “What I’m trying to say is that I knew Anthony and I wouldn’t have the same freedom we did before, but we never once considered we’d ever have a child with special needs.”


Renee and Anthony discovered quickly the trials of parenthood, but also became hyper-aware of other challenges -- the glares from other parents or strangers, the judgmental comments made by family members, and the heartache of not knowing what to do when their son seemed so unapproachable and upset.


“I feel like I was this woman who was so put together before, who really knew who she was and what she liked to do and how to handle whatever it was that was put in front of me,” says Renee. “After Matthew, I feel like I learn every single day. I feel sometimes like I’m failing all the time. And other times I know I wouldn’t have it any different.”


Read about how to thrive as a parent of a child with autism.




Matthew is, according to his parents, a bright, bubbly and pleasant boy, save for tantrums and anxious episodes that seemed to occur with increasing regularity by the time he turned three. Loud noises, or even certain images -- balloons, bright red items, or large groups of people, for example -- seemed to trigger meltdowns for little Matthew. 


Although the general public is growing more aware of autism spectrum disorder, parents and guardians of kids with autism say society just simply doesn’t seem to be quite ready – they don’t understand, or sometimes can’t seem to accept, that a child with autism may feel the need to scream or cry in an effort to be heard, or because they have yet not adopted other skills to communicate. For parents, then, especially new ones, the experience becomes even more unpleasant: not only is it challenging already to care for a child having a meltdown, they have to deal with everyone else’s judgment too.


How to help teach your child to be less aggressive.


First, why are there meltdowns?


In order for society to accept that meltdowns – even in public – are common, it might help to understand why there are meltdowns in the first place.


Autism spectrum disorder carries with it several reported symptoms, like social anxiety, sensory overload, and fear. Kids with autism may feel disrupted, afraid or bothered by chewing noises, groups of people chatting, unknown smells, or even the sound coming from an air conditioner or space heater. If the child is exposed to a number of unpleasant sights, sounds and smells, he or she will likely have a meltdown.


It’s important to note that this is not the child’s desire to be difficult. It’s simply a physical and emotional response to sensory overload. As a parent or guardian of a child with autism, knowing what might trigger the meltdown and anticipating how you’ll help your child handle it may make the event less traumatizing for you and your child.



How do I handle my child’s meltdown?


First, don’t allow yourself to be embarrassed if members of the public start judging you. Remember that you have nothing to be ashamed of and that no one has a right to make you feel badly. If your autistic child is having a meltdown, he or she is in a considerable deal of pain, and likely very scared. That’s not for anyone to judge or scoff at.


Second, get yourself ready. Experts suggest preparing for outings using the following tips:


Start small. Instead of taking your autistic child to the mall right away, you might want to take him or her to a smaller convenience store that’s popular in your neighborhood. Get him or her accustomed to shopping with fewer people and hearing strangers converse around you. Bring your child to the counter and encourage a little bit of engagement with the cashier. This way, there are fewer people and fewer sensory overload opportunities.


If you’re planning on going out to dinner, you can perhaps start at home and invite a few friends over. Ask them ahead of time to be sensitive to your child’s needs and if you have to ask them to quiet down or lower their voices, it will show your child that people have different tones of voice and if asked politely, will likely accommodate your request.


Know that you may not succeed every time you try something, but it’s not a failure on your part or your child’s – it’s just rehearsal for a different event.


Look for options. Renee and Anthony, avid movie lovers, wanted to share their love of the movie theater with Matthew. “A friend of ours from a support group recommended we try going to the movies during the day when there would be less people,” shares Renee. “We thought, ‘That makes sense. We’ll go to a family movie – I think it was a cartoon – and we’ll bring earphones to muffle the sound if it gets too loud.’ It might not work for every family, but it worked for us.” If you’re a movie lover too and want to take your autistic child to the movies, check your local listings and see if there are “sensory-friendly” showings in your area, during which theaters turn the lights up and the sound down so that kids with autism wouldn’t be threatened by loud soundtracks or jarring images.


Plan an escape. If you’ve passed the first stage and are now out, everything might go well and just as planned – or it might not. You may find that regardless of all the practice runs and preparations that your child still has a meltdown. That’s okay! You just have to have an escape route.


Before you head to where you’re going (if possible), scope out the space. If it’s a restaurant, ask to be seated near a door. If it’s at a friend’s house, find out if they have a back door or a side door you can exit from without disrupting anyone else’s visit.


The escape plan isn’t just for you to run from those stares – it’s for your child. A quick getaway will be a relief from your child, who might have felt trapped or unhappy in the space.


Read some more tips we have on how to handle a meltdown.


Don’t worry if it just won’t work. Parents and experts have said this time and again: if it’s just not happening, don’t fret. You can plan as much as you like and hope for the best, but every child is different. Some children with autism just can’t handle going to a restaurant or a movie. Going to places like that might be causing your autistic child major anxieties and fears, and ultimately, pain. Sensory overload has been described by some as torture, and if your child just can’t get through an outing public, there’s nothing for you to do but be supportive, compassionate and loving.


Going out in public with your autistic child may be challenging, but it doesn’t have to be impossible. Alliance ABA Therapy, located in Dumfries, VA, would love to hear from you and discuss concerns you may have about going out in public with your autistic child. Visit us atwww.allianceabatherapy.com to find out more.  


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