As any parent of an autistic child will tell you, people can be really judgmental. Autistic children can have meltdowns wherever you are, in shops, parks, family outings… you name it. When the child is very young, you may get an understanding smile from another parent, who views it as an ordinary toddler tantrum, but as the autistic child gets bigger, the looks become more and more disapproving.
You can almost hear their thoughts “Can’t s/he control their kid!”, “What a rubbish parent!”, “That child needs some discipline!”.
Some people are obnoxious enough to actually give filthy looks or make nasty or sarcastic comments, even to your face (occasionally even to the autistic child’s face). Some, if they realise your child has a condition, can even make discriminatory comments about not bringing your child out in public.
How easy it is for those people, to have their perfect children, who don’t panic and start to meltdown because the shop is too busy or too hot, or the hand-dryers in the toilets are too noisy, or because the shop assistant spoke to them. How easy it is for them to grab a bag and go out with kids in tow, without having to first identify if their child is having a good day or a bad day, think through whether the destination is going to be busier on that day, or whether it’s too hot and their temperature-sensitive child is going to become overwhelmed before half an hour has passed. Or even whether as a parent, you possess the wherewithal that day, to deal with it, if anything like that does happen.
Autism parents don’t expect everyone to automatically know about autism, or what effects autism has on the person with it. But we do expect that when they see a child who isn’t a toddler, having what looks like a toddler tantrum, they realise there is clearly something up that can’t be helped. When they see that child repetitively and apparently aggressively questioning their parent, or loudly demanding x, y, z, they should think twice before they look child and parent up and down like dirt on their shoe. (Yes, middle-aged lady in Asda, that was you, at your age I would have expected more compassion and understanding). Because that child was in a panic they couldn’t control.
They should realise, that when they see a parent with such a big child behaving that way, the reason the parent is not telling their child off and is staying oddly calm, what looks to them like a passive ‘doesn’t-give-a-damn’ parent, is in fact a parent who knows their child has reached the point of being overwhelmed and the last thing they need is their parent shouting at them to behave. That if the parent deals with it the wrong way, it could push that big child into aggression through sheer blind panic, that could affect members of the public around. Is that what they would prefer?
And when their own perfect children all stop to stare open-mouthed, it would be nice if they could tell them not to stare with open mouths. To lead them away and explain that the child cannot help it and it can make them even more overwhelmed if they realise everyone is staring. And actually, yes, it is also rude. And if you could also actually supervise your children, so they don’t gather in a circle round the autistic child, that would be appreciated too. A little compassion goes a long way as they say. While you have the luxury of not even watching your children, so may not even be aware they are treating an autistic child like a zoo exhibit, there is an autism parent who never gets a minute off, who has to supervise their child the whole time to keep them safe and ensure they are keeping their equilibrium.
While members of the public having perfect children, can go on holiday without a second thought, leaving them rested and full of beans, so that they have the energy to take such an interest in the lives of others and generate negative looks and comments, there are autism families who don’t get to take holidays at all. Or if they do, they have to restrict themselves to certain types of holidays (perhaps nowhere involving an airplane, or no hotel – only detached chalets to avoid inflicting meltdowns on those in adjacent rooms, or no coach journeys) meaning potentially higher costs, less holidays overall or no opportunities to see the world and have a relaxing beach holiday. Some autism families are unable to leave their children with friends or family because of their child’s needs. So they can never have a ‘me time’ break or holiday.
So some sympathy, even some admiration would be welcome. But when autism parents go out with their children, what they don’t need is judgmental looks, tuts and glares, nor sarcasm or nastiness. Most autism parents are not receiving the support they should receive from health or social care, they are unpaid heroes doing their best to raise their children to achieve whatever is possible for them to achieve. They are battered by having had to fight the system every step of the way for their child’s basic rights and the difficulties in being included in society.
So take a leaf out of this man’s book we don’t expect you to pay our tab, but this sentiment is what mattered most to the autism mum when her son had a meltdown in the restaurant:
You may just restore an autism parent’s faith in humanity and feel better about yourself as well.