Parenting children on the autism spectrum can make interactions with the public a stressful event. The child’s behaviors can draw disapproving and judgmental stares or unsolicited remarks from the public. Autism differs from many other disabilities based on the fact that children with autism generally do not appear different from neurotypical children.
When people see a blind child with a cane, they immediately understand that the child is blind. It is obvious that a child cannot walk if they use a wheel chair for mobility. A child with hearing aids is deaf to some degree. Children with autism very often have no discernible differences in appearance. Their disability is hidden from the eye to a large extent.
This fact is resultant in individuals making judgments when observing autistic children. A parent who’s six year old is in a stroller will result in comments or stares concerning why a child that old is riding in a stroller. The unsuspecting person does not comprehend that the child may bolt and needs to be restrained in a stroller for their well being during a shopping expedition so no harm comes to them.
A child may experience sensory overload due to crowds, loud noises even a rainbow of bright colors that overload their sensory intolerant eyes. Simply passing a fish store could send their nose which possesses heightened sensitivity to smells into an experience resultant in a meltdown the size of an eruption from Mount Helena.
The unsuspecting public perceives a child who is much too old for those behaviors. Parents with autistic children may receive unsolicited advice such as “what your child needs is a slap”. These comments not only affect the positive self efficacy of the kids but their parents as well.
Unfortunately, the end result is embarrassment, feeling like an incapable parent and eventually some parents will avoid taking their autistic children out in public to avoid the judgmental stares and comments. My resolution for this issue is more public education programs. Commercials explaining autism in media venues, educational programs within our schools, libraries and hospitals could prove a productive way to not only educate adults, but children as well.
If autism education and more inclusion programs started at a younger age, our next generation of adults would accept working and living side by side with autistic individuals with more tolerance. Inclusive workplaces are becoming more common place, thus children of today will definitely be the adults of tomorrow in inclusive environments.
Merely having inclusive environments is not enough. Society must be trained and educated as well on the definition of autism and how to interact cohesively. Parents can play a part as well. When you are confronted with judgmental people, do not be embarrassed. You have nothing to be embarrassed about. Your child has autism. You are parenting them the best as you can. Their autism is not your fault and is not indicative of your parenting skills. Meltdowns and behavioral issues can be unpredictable. One unpredictable change in their schedule, a sudden loud crash and sound of breaking glass when a waitress breaks something in a restaurant, even a sudden loud voice on overhead intercom could cause your child to behave in an unexpected manner. All examples mentioned are out of your control.
What is in your control is to educate unknowing onlookers. In explaining your child’s autism to an individual rather then retreating in anger or shame, you have paved the way for one less intolerant person to walk this earth. Offer to speak at your child’s school or church where others interact with him or her. Write a letter to the editor in your local paper regarding the topic of autistic individuals and their families. You are equipped with an incredible amount of power and knowledge that was developed from bringing up your child. You went to the best college in the world, the college of hard knocks. So, walk tall and proud.
Create business cards with a link to several of the autism societies on it and hand it to individuals who appear perplexed by your child’s behavior. Suggest they look through those sights to better understand autism. The majority of people are not being rude; they simply do not understand your child’s behavior. No doubt, there are intentionally rude and inconsiderate individuals. I have experienced their wrath at times with comments like if your child cannot control themselves keep them at home. (After explaining their issues)
For the most part however, the majority of individuals are merely uneducated on the spectrum and do not understand how to react. I have experienced situations myself where people were quite embarrassed themselves for judging you and your child once I explained the situation behind a meltdown.
Do not lock yourselves in your home and become hermits rather then venture out with your kids. Avoiding the public will not help in the long run. Through outings your child can gradually be equipped with skills they will not obtain by staying home. Your emotional and physical health will suffer as well from being isolated.
To desensitize a child to public sensory overload, take baby steps. Take them for a ride in the car to see Christmas lights. This experience allows the child to experience the public world initially with a car window separating them from overwhelming experiences. It also provides the child with a sense of self control as they have the ability to look away from the window when overstimulated.
Watch a parade from a safe distance of crowds. Go into a local supermarket early in the morning or late at night when crowds and noise tend to dissipate. Stay in the store for a very short time. Gradually enter the store when it is more crowded and only when your child is accustomed to the environment. Again, stay for a very short time.
As time goes on, lengthen the amount of time of your excursion. This allows the child to gradually get accustomed to a new environment and not feel threatened by it. This method can be adapted to trips at the park, restaurant excursions and more.
Before going out, show your child pictures of your destination. Post pictures on the wall. On the day of your excursion, allow the child to take down the picture as you remind them of your outing on this day. Perhaps you could provide your child with a favorite stuffed animal or toy that will provide them with comfort during the outing. If the comfort item is a coveted item that normally is left at home it will prove to be a reinforcer as well. Verbal praise is always of the utmost importance; make it clear, concise and short. But do catch them being good so to speak.
If your child inevitably has a meltdown or other challenge on outings, remember, you are doing the best you can. You do not possess a crystal ball to predict your child’s behavior. Persevere and never ever let the public’s perception of you and your child dictate the course of your family’s actions. Hold your head up high and be proud of yourself. On difficult days, look in a mirror at your reflection and say look how far we have come rather then look what we cannot do. You will be surprised at what positive growth you and your family have made.
There is a light at the end of the tunnel if you just look hard and far enough.
I am a published author and focus on books pertaining to autism and Aspergers Syndrome. I have had special needs articles published in several magazines. I have been interviewed several times in print, on pod casts, and internet T.V. regarding the autism spectrum. I have presented autism workshops to staff, management teams, and parent groups. I offer tips on curriculum development and behavior modification within the classroom and through in-services. I am certified by the Department of Early Childhood Education as a lead preschool teacher, an infant and toddler teacher, and site coordinator qualified to manage school age programs. I have recently ventured into public speaking engagements to educate both parents and educators on autism and Aspergers Syndrome
I want my experiences and challenges to be used productively as a learning tool for other parents and for educators as well. When my son was diagnosed with Asperger’s a decade ago it was a foreign word among many parents and professionals alike. I fought for help never giving up. Through my books I wish to help parents feel like they do not walk in the dark, that they are not alone, empower them and that there is light at the end of the tunnel. I also want to educate society at large on the topic of the autism spectrum. I believe all parties involved need to work as a collaborative team in order to insure a special needs child’s Amazon.com at Mari Nosal : Please stop by my site at Amazon Books and check out my published books on autism aspergers special needs and more you like my articles, aside from being the parent of an adult with Aspergers Syndrome/ A.D.D and an educational professional, I am also a published author of many special needs and autism related books written to inspire and support parents, families, educators and society at large as well. Please stop by and check out my books on http://tinyurl.com/kdspqy9
Mari Nosal M.Ed.