It was last week. I took my son (5, nonverbal autistic) to the indoor playground to play. It’s a 1.5 hour drive from where we live, and he was already tired by the time we arrived. I had everything prepared: his food and drinks were purchased, I had a back-up set of clothes in his backpack, wipes, pull-ups, and a transition plan to make leaving easier.
Then it all started to go downhill. First, he ran around the parking lot — something he doesn’t do there usually because he’s so happy to play. I told him we’d have to go back in the car, but he cried and was so upset. We’d already driven all that way, so I relented when he went inside to play. Red flag number 1.
We got inside, picking a familiar table. I set his visual timer so he’d know how much time he had to play. Things seemed to be going okay. Red flag 2. He was being rough with another kid, trying to wrestle with him when he obviously wasn’t into it. (He learned this from some bigger kids last time we were there). “Calm body, gentle hands,” I reminded him. Yet he persisted. Okay, time to go.
I couldn’t get him out of the play structure, but he seemed to be more gentle after that. Finally, about an hour later, his timer goes off. He’s obviously tired and hungry. I let him know his time was up and it’s time to go bye-bye and get a toy (my transition plan). He acted as if he was understanding and accepting the reality of leaving, then bolted back up to the top of the play structure.
He stayed up there for another 10–20 minutes while I tried to coax him out. I tried to go up there and get him, but he’s too fast for these 29-year-old knees😂
Eventually I was able to sequester him in the bottom “box” (a netted area). I wouldn’t let him leave until he agreed to go to the car. He managed to escape me.
For the next 45 minutes, we were in the midst of the tantrum of a lifetime. He didn’t want to leave, and I understood that, but he was obviously hungry, overstimulated, and overtired. I kept my calm the best I could, continued to speak gently to him and reinforce the boundary that we’re going to the car and we’re all done playing.
He became so aggressive he bit me, leaving a nasty bruise on my leg. Head butts, more biting attempts, him slamming his head onto the ground and the walls so many times he developed a nasty rug burn and even busted his lip open, causing him to bleed on himself and me.
For about 40-ish of those minutes, everyone in the entire play area just stared at us. At one point he got quiet and I thought he’d fallen asleep. (No such sleep occurred.) I cried three times during the whole ordeal. How do you help your child when they’re so bent on hurting themselves and you? I continued to do the best I could to keep him contained. He accidentally kicked a kid in the face (after I politely told the child it wasn’t safe and he should stay away).
If you’ve ever been in this situation, you know how alone you can feel. Helpless. I kept thinking, “well if my mom was here or if I had a partner, we could just carry him out and let him regulate in the car.” But I was by myself.
A very nice woman named Jessie came over and said, “Is there anything I can do to help you?” I was flabbergasted, but her kindness touched me and instantly made me feel a little more hopeful. “No, I can’t think of anything right now, but just you offering makes me feel better. Everyone just keeps staring,” I said.
“I’ve been in your shoes.” she smiled. “Oh really?” I said inquisitively, doubtfully. I didn’t believe her. Until she said, “my oldest is autistic. I know how it is.”
Instant sigh of relief. Yes you DO know. Thank God. “I’ll be right over there if you need anything.”
The toddler-tornado of the century raged on. I finally got him to agree to go to the car. Jessie followed us out without me even asking. Sure enough, he dropped to the ground like a sack of potatoes when we got to the parking lot. Jessie said, “I’ve got a puppy in my car, do you want me to get him to coax him in the car?” Before I could even think, she’d gotten the puppy and my son was staring up at him excitedly. “Dog?” he said. “Yes, it’s a dog! You can pet the dog but you have to get in your seat,” she told him.
He excitedly got off the ground and into the car, then began petting the puppy. He even got kisses.
Around the corner, another mom with pink hair (one of the starers) emerged with a toy dinosaur. “I brought a back up!” she said.
“Look how good you’re sitting!” she told my son. “You are petting the puppy!” she praised him. “Are you going to make good choices?” He was too engrossed in the puppy to care about that part.😅
She turned her attention to me. “I wanted to help but I didn’t want to invade his space.”
“You could’ve!” I reassured her. “It means a lot.”
I thanked them both. “You did great,” the pink-haired mom said. “I cried three times,” I said.
Once in the car, I cried two or three more times. It was a lot for him, and it was a lot for me. We got food in his belly and once he was all calmed down, we were able to go to Target, pick out a toy, and then go to the market and get some well-deserved candy.
While at Target, I caught another mom singing the same song I was. Her son started screaming. “Sorry,” she said. “Don’t worry about it. We just got done with an hour long tantrum at McDonald’s. Screaming…”
“Did he get his McDonald’s?” she chuckled. “Yeah. Problem was he didn’t want to leave! That’s where this came from,” I said, pointing to the big red mark on his forehead.
“I was wondering about that,” she said. Of course she noticed it, I thought, expecting judgment. “He’s autistic,” I said, “self-harm is just part of it sometimes.”
To my surprise, she said, “I used to work in an autism classroom.”
Sigh of relief number 2.
That’s the day I realized how important it is for special needs parents and caregivers to stick together. We need each other, because who will understand us better than those who have lived it too?
It’s also the day I realized how important it is to educate the public so they can feel empowered and informed to help special needs parents when they need it. A simple “can I do anything to help you?” can mean the whole world to a struggling parent.
This wasn’t my first rodeo, but it’s the first time anybody’s stepped up like that.
In fact, I can vividly remember another meltdown from a few weeks ago. I had taken my son to the park, and for the first time in a long time, he eloped. Running into the road three times, each more dangerous than the last. I told him, “no road! Road can die you.” Harsh? Maybe. But that’s the language he understands.
Four brawny construction workers who were installing a swing set nearby stopped what they were doing and watched the whole thing. But not one of them offered to help. Including the one I recognized from a separate playground experience because he’s got an autistic niece.
Now, I’m by no means saying they owed me help. But it broke my heart and frustrated me that they watched as I tried absolutely everything to get my child to safety, when the easiest thing to do would’ve been to pick him up and put him in the car. Something I couldn’t do because he’s too heavy for me to carry like that now.
I remember praying for help and thinking, “any one of those guys could come over here and help. I don’t know what to do. Why aren’t they even asking me what’s wrong?”
It seems nowadays people have a fear of getting involved. They don’t want to be nosy, don’t want to interfere, don’t want to risk…whatever it is they may feel they’ll be risking.
But I can tell you right now, the simple act of Jessie coming over and asking the question gave me renewed energy to continue helping my son. It helped me (also neurodivergent) regulate. It made me feel hopeful and invigorated. And I honestly think those interactions turned the tide of our entire day.
So my charge to you, whether you’re a special needs parent, a professional, an expert, clinician, or bystander….don’t be afraid to help. You’re not being nosy. You’re not interfering. You’re not a bother. If you see an opening*, “can I do anything to help?” is all it takes. Don’t be intimidated.
Neurodivergent kids and their families need greater acceptance and support from those around them. We all should support each other when we see each other struggling.
I hope someday I can be someone’s Jessie and pink-haired-mom.
*Please don’t approach an autistic person (child or adult) in a meltdown. If you choose to interact, speak directly to the parent or caregiver and offer to help. If they say no, respect that. Speaking directly to the child can escalate the situation and make things worse for the parent.
This article is adapted from my original post in the Beaming Community.