This parent of three children on the autism spectrum offers advice on addressing parents with an autistic child.
It was a long morning of doctor check-ups and an hour-and-a-half drive. By lunchtime, we were ready for food. “Eat,” I imagined my son’s tummy yelling to mine.
My son was three years old at that time and had a vocabulary of a handful of words. The essentials like “eat,” “all done,” “more” and “Samsung.” Samsung? Well, it’s not an essential, but it was one of his first four words. My son is on the autism spectrum and has sensory processing disorder (SPD)—a disorder I didn’t know at the time.
I stopped at the closest restaurant and made a quick assessment. It was small, with only 10 tables, the food looked delicious and they served noodles. Score! “Can I have a booth for two?” I asked the hostess. “Sure, you can sit here,” she responded, as she also walked another guest to her table.
As soon as we sat down, I went into full “Entertain Sebastian to avoid a food tantrum mode,” as I always do when we go to restaurants. I grabbed my purse—moving toys, documents and diapers out of the way—and found my phone. I turned it on and played his favorite Daniel Tiger app. He loves this app. He can entertain himself with it for 20 minutes or even longer at a time. But to my surprise, the app only entertained him for about three.
“Eat!” he yelled at the top of his lungs. I quickly went back into my purse to look for a box of crayons and paper. This usually does the trick and can give me 10 minutes before a tantrum hits. It gave me two.
“Eat! Eat! Eat!” Sebastian yelled again. In full panic and embarrassment, I dove back into my purse to find a sweet treat: a cookie, candy or chocolate … something he could snack on while we waited for our food. Nothing was working. The loud noise of the small, filled restaurant was overwhelming, and since he couldn’t express his frustration, he was yelling one of the only four words he knew. I then quickly flagged down the waitress and ask for a Sprite soda can. Soda isn’t a drink I give my children, but it was my last option if I wanted to enjoy a meal with my son at this restaurant.
As I tried to calm my son down and avoid a bigger meltdown, a guest walked up to our table from across the room. “You’re making a lot of noise little boy. Do you see what you are doing? You’re being bad and disrespectful,” the guest scolded my son in a stern voice loud enough for the entire restaurant to hear. She then looked at me and shook her head in disapproval, and returned to her seat.
I couldn’t believe what had happened. The entire restaurant was looking at us. I was in shock. I was embarrassed and in disbelief. Then all of a sudden, tears ran down my cheeks as the waitress finally brought over the soda can. I opened the can and allowed my son to drink up.
I often think about this incident. When I share the memory with friends, they often respond with, “Oh, if that was me, I would go off on them.” And they’re right. Every parent is a Mama Bear or Papa Bear when it comes to their children. And one of our many duties is to protect when we feel that our cubs are under attack. But I knew this was more than a pouncing moment. I realized it was a perfect opportunity for me to create awareness and share the different ways you can address a socially inappropriate behavior to a parent of an autistic child.
Autistic children often have social deficiencies. Some children isolate themselves, others speak too loudly for their environments, and others get overwhelmed in big crowds. An autistic child could also have SPD like my son. SPD affects one or multiple senses—like sound, touch, taste, sight or smell. Children with SPD can be over- or under-responsive to the things they have difficulties with. Some children with SPD are oversensitive to things in their environment and common sounds may be painful or overwhelming. If a child is on the spectrum or if you don’t know if he or she is on the spectrum and want to inform their parent of their behavior, consider these approaches:
- The Non-Confrontational — Whatever you do, don’t ever scold someone else’s child. It is never received well and if a parent is under a lot of stress, a situation can escalate. Consider this non-confrontational approach: “Excuse me, I don’t know if you’re aware, but your child is (fill in the blank).” This will inform the parent that their child is doing something socially inappropriate without causing blame and gets straight to the point.
- The Sensitive — “Hi, I see your child is (fill in the blank) and I feel their frustration (insert emotion). Is there a way that they can feel better?” This approach is comforting and easy to relate to.
- The Curious — “Hi, I see that your child is behaving a certain way, is there something that they are feeling or bothered by?” This approach opens the door for learning something new.
- The Problem Solver — “Excuse me, your child is (fill in the blank), can I help you with something so that they could (insert outcome)?” This approach is great in addressing an inappropriate behavior right away and creates an immediate solution.
One thing to always remember is that autism is not a deformity or something that can be seen. Autism and SPD are disorders that affect an individual socially, emotionally or with their senses. Children on the spectrum can be healthy, happy kids, just like children who are not on the spectrum. In addition, autism parents feel the same range of emotions as a parent with no special needs children. Be patient. Be curious. Your kindness goes a long way.
Karen Cervantes Jimenez believes everyone is unique and that by sharing their personal stories, they can make a difference in the world. She is an autism awareness and emotional intelligence advocate, a mother of three, foster parent of two and lives in Buena Park.
By Karen Cervantes Jimenez
Photo above: Karen Cervantes Jimenez (top right) poses for a picture with her twins Sebastian (bottom middle), 4, who has mid-level 2 functioning autism with sensory processing disorder and Savannah (bottom right), 4, who is high functioning and Samantha (left), 8, who is also high functioning.