My mother pointed out this letter to the editor in the Oregonian this weekend.
Misjudging a meltdown
My child was having a meltdown at a Target store one recent day. A man walked past us, shaking his head. He turned around, stared at us and rolled his eyes. He was probably thinking, “What kind of parent puts up with that terrible behavior?”
Let me tell you what kind of parent I am. I am the mother of a daughter with autism. Stores are a challenge for my daughter. She does her best to “behave” and I do my best to help her cope.
This man saw me attempting to calm a child who was crying and running away. He misjudged the situation.
I will not lock my child away to avoid getting dirty looks from people like him. He made my day more unpleasant, but he will never make me ashamed of my child. He should be ashamed. LISA S. COOK Southeast Portland
We all talked about it for a while. My mother’s take was interesting; on first glance she said that she really felt for the woman in the letter. She and my father have been with Rachel when she was having a meltdown. A particular situation happened in Baskin Robins one day when they had to take her out of the shop because she wanted cake instead of ice-cream and had a complete meltdown. But, then my mom said she started to feel sorry for the guy too. Yes, it is awful to have people stare at your child, to see that look of disdain as they turn away smug that they wouldn’t put up with that behavior. But the reality is they just don’t understand. They function in a world where autism is something you hear about on the news, or they know that a co-worker or neighbor’s child is autistic and that child doesn’t act-up so horribly. She felt the letter in the end had been written with the hope that the offending gentleman would read it and be embarrassed by it.
My husband and I are both sympathetic, but our response was more along the lines of “Poor Ms Cook, just wait until her daughter is a little older. Those rolled-eyed, ‘what a bad parent you must be’ looks are absolutely nothing compared to the looks you get when you have to physically drag your pre-teen out of a public place.” When you are packing an eleven year old girl out of the mall with her kicking and screaming you are far, far more concerned about what you are going to say to security when they stop you then you are the thoughts of random people staring. Of course we have to laugh looking back at how many times we have wanted to say something to the people who stare or maybe just melt into the floor because the situation has gotten embarrassing. So we really do feel for this lady and we hope that her daughter out-grows the tantrums. Until and unless that happens, really, what can you say – people are going to stare at some point you have to come to terms with it.
Assuming that Ms Cook’s assessment of the man’s thoughts is accurate the title is correct he misjudged a meltdown. But, in his defense it is pretty easy to do. Autistic kids don’t look different. In fact, unless you actually know what to look for (that far away look in the eyes, the repetitive movement, and sometimes very subtle little signs) there is no way to tell. How do you tell a tantruming four year old who is autistic from a tantruming four year old who isn’t? I don’t know and I have a good bit of experience with both autistic and non-autistic tantrums. So I guess personally I am willing, in principle, to cut the random stranger some slack.
Now I say in principle because I happen to have not always exactly lived up to my live and let live philosophy. Once, when Rachel was about five, we were in a Fred Meyer’s store (sort of like a cross between a Safeway and a Target for those not in the Northwest) and Rachel had a complete meltdown over this ugly, yet expensive, metal Halloween pumpkin decoration that I was not going to buy. She cried and fell on the floor and was just having an all out tantrum of the first degree. I was tired, frustrated, embarrassed and this woman with her teenage daughter walked by. “I never let you act like that when you were that age!” she said in sotto voce designed for me to hear yet giving her the illusion that she was trying to be discrete. I let her have it. As in I LET . HER . HAVE . IT. I turned on her with murder in my eyes and in as controlled and flat and furious a voice as I could manage I said something like, “Oh, yeah lady, well my kid is autistic and you have no bloody idea what you are talking about, I am doing the best I can. If you would like to get over here and show me how to parent my child better then I do be my guest! Other wise don’t be such a jackass.” Not my finest moment, I will admit. I think I scared the woman half to death, she was about a foot shorter than me, a good ten to fifteen years older and not in anywhere near the physical condition I was in. I probably looked like I was ten seconds or less from beating someone to a bloody pulp and she was the nearest, handy person. She looked very upset and shocked and stammered, “Oh no, no, I’m really sorry, you are doing really great – really!”
That is one of those moments in my life that I really am conflicted about. On one hand I am sort of proud. I said it and at the time I meant it. I put the woman in her place, she was being rude and I think I had a valid point. On the other hand I am also rather shamed by it. I was embarrassed, stressed, upset and emotionally unhinged at the time – none of that had anything to do with her, it had to do with the situation and it was wrong to take all that out on her the way I did over her ignorant, self congratulatory statement. I find it amusing that I can feel both emotions simultaneously. It was definitely a moment where I spoke first and thought second, but sometimes ‘mommy rage’ charges ahead even against our better natures.