The Inevitable Meltdown
We have six children, four are typical, two are autistic. Years before our autistic children were born, I had an experience that I like to believe, prepared me for what was to come. I remember that day well. I was standing in The Boneyard, a children’s play area at Disney’s Animal Kingdom, on the upper level, watching my children run about. Suddenly, I heard some screaming. Looking directly below me, I noticed what appeared to be a 14-year-old girl having an argument with a younger sister. They seemed to be quarreling over a hat. The older girl was clearly over-reacting to the situation. She was screaming, and jumping around, while the younger child, clung to the item. The older girl repeated over and over the same demand, “my hat, my hat.” Her behavior seemed unusual for a teenager and her language simplistic at best. I didn’t know anything about autism in those days and I probably wouldn’t have remembered the experience at all, had it not been for their mother. As I watched the scene below, I became incredibly impressed by this mother’s response. She entered the playground, spoke quietly, calmed the troubled girl, slid the hat back into the older daughter’s hand (evidently, it was her hat), and motioned the girls to follow her. It was a short, almost insignificant, encounter, but for some reason it stuck with me. I also sensed that there was something different about the older girl that I didn’t understand, which had caused the mother to respond without anger toward her teenage daughter’s immature behavior. Here are some of the thoughts that I have gleaned through the years, that apply as much to your theme park experience, as they do to the daily life of an autism mom.
Cast Members Can Help
I am always amazed, when someone approaches me during an Andy meltdown moment, and tries to support or assist. I am humbled and thankful. However, we all want to manage this world without leaning on others. Of course, this is true when we are on vacation. Whenever, our family is at Walt Disney World, we try to blend in and not make waves, but occasionally, that isn’t possible. Most of the time, when trouble starts, we are able to manage without assistance. However, not long ago, our Andy, who is several inches taller than his dad and about a foot taller than me, had a meltdown. When your child is that big, a meltdown does not go unnoticed by the crowd. I managed to get him to sit down on a bench, inside the park but not far from the entrance to Epcot. I decided the best move was to wait for reinforcement and since my husband was about 10 mins away, we sat down to wait. Wouldn’t you know, he fell asleep on the bench (See Article on fatigue here). When Jeff arrived, he waited with him, while I went to meet our daughter further inside the park. When Andy woke up, he was still in sleepy mode and not yet himself. They joined us where we were sitting outside a counter-service restaurant. Unfortunately, the meltdown continued. A sweet cast member happened to notice Andy, and this young lady went to work. She brought out napkins and stickers. She tried to speak to him and listened to our struggle. Andy eventually came around. Often times, there isn’t much anyone can do. However, there have been times that chatting with a cast member has given me comfort and encouragement, that in turn, helped me to deal effectively with Andy. We have reached out to cast members when we have lost Andy (story for another article). Occasionally, when we are 15 mins early for a Fast Pass return and Andy is not into waiting one more minute, I have engaged them with an “ugh, he’s not good at waiting” conversation and they let us in early. Also, we have reached out for help during the fireworks, when Andy was overwhelmed by the noise. On that occasion, we sought refuge in a gift shop that was closing. The cast members were welcoming and understanding. Don’t be shy. These employees are well trained and willing to lend a hand whenever they can.
People are “Watching, Always Watching”
Roz, from Monsters, Inc. tells Mike Wazowski, “I’m watching, always watching…” Sometimes when I am out in the public eye with my kiddos, I feel like there are millions of Rozs surrounding me and watching. I have to remind myself that years ago on The Boneyard, I was a watcher. Of course, people are watching. I also remember early on, when one of our kiddos would behave differently than a typical child at their age, I would explain to anyone within earshot, “I’m sorry, he’s autistic.” In the early days, before autism awareness campaigns, very few people knew what that was. Regardless, it made me feel better. One day one of our typical kids, asked me, “Mom, why do you keep telling everyone that Andy is autistic?” I thought about it and I realized that I was trying to make sure that everyone around me knew that there was something wrong with this child, not with me. I was basically saying, “Look, my child has a disability, I am doing the best I can, I am not a bad mom.” To the moms, who need to explain their child, I say go ahead. It made me feel better when I welcomed strangers into my struggle. Other moms might prefer to keep it to themselves. That’s ok, too. We just have to realize that people will watch. And some will lack any empathy. Sometimes, informing them might illicit support. Like one time when the cashier, sensing my struggle gathered up my groceries from the cart, speedily moved my order through, and with tears in her eyes, said, “I know, I have one too.” At the Disney Parks, you will find watchers, helpers, and those who ignore the scene. Since my day with the photographing tourist, at the exit to Animal Kingdom (see article here), I’ve had to learn that I cannot control anyone else’s response to my child’s behaviors. And, only occasionally, can I control my child’s behavior. But, I can control my own. I think I learned that best from watching the mom at the playground. Whenever, I am at the Disney Parks with Andy, and he is beginning a tantrum or meltdown, I think of that lady. I think, “Here I am on stage again. I’m going to give my child the best I’ve got, and maybe someone will learn that patience is possible.”
Out of Patience?
Let me add, we all have times, lots of them, when we feel like we’ve got no patience left. This is the moment that we wave the white flag for help. Hopefully, you are traveling with helpers. We have found that a 2:1 ratio is necessary, just about anywhere we go. So pass off your “Andy” to your helper, or if he will go, take him along for a little boat ride on “It’s a Small World.” Listen to the words: “There’s so much that we share, that it’s time you’re aware, It’s a small world after all.” Know that you are not alone! We share in the struggle. When the inevitable meltdown occurs, remember others have been there too. Hopefully, sharing our stories will make this small world seem a little less overwhelming for each of us.