(Originally appeared on the VestLife blog)
It feels like yesterday, but it wasn’t. My son and I were doing some browsing around at a San Francisco shopping plaza. It looked like rain was coming, so I had an umbrella. I also carried a very loaded-up backpack. Special needs parents go places prepared for almost anything!
After a visit to F.A.O. Schwartz where I encouraged Zach to pick out something he wanted, we trekked down the street to a lovely department store. As rain began to fall, we went inside.
Apparently half the people walking down the same street had the same thought. We first searched for a restroom, and then we took the long escalators to the top floor. (It was like an amusement park ride for him!)
It was less crowded up there. But you know how it goes: it only takes one person. As we walked around, something brewed. Like the storm outside, there was an impending storm inside Zach. Maybe it was the stimulation of the toy store. It could have been the bustling street with horns honking or blinking traffic lights. Maybe it was the lights and sounds inside the department store, or even the change in weather.
Suddenly, Zach screamed. We’re talking a loud, shrill, echoing type of scream. The high ceilings and the open escalators seemed to amplify the sound. People stared. In my attempt to quiet and calm him, he grabbed me. My sleeve was tethered and pulled. It seemed like a fear reflex; a reaction to the overwhelming sensory input he experienced.
I managed – heavy backpack and all – to escort him into the dress department behind a large pillar without losing any hair. I sat him down on the carpeted floor. Looking around, this might not have been the best choice. Sequined gowns sparkled on their hangers under the fluorescent lights. If things worsened, I might have been going home with a bag of sequins that had once been a dress.
After a pause, Zach lunged at my legs. I hopped around to avoid him. Anyone not seeing a boy on the floor might have thought I was waltzing around right there in the formalwear department. You know, prancing around like I was Ginger Rogers.
I kept silent as I thought quickly about my next move. I could not approach him for fear of a hair-pulling. I did not want to parade him down the escalators from the top floor while this meltdown had him in a bad place. I also did not want security coming over and “handling” things.
I looked around for the elevator. At least in there, we’d be secluded as long as no one got on. Slim chance of an empty elevator though. As I tap-danced to avoid the grasping hands below and checked my surroundings, I noticed her.
A woman was standing maybe 15 feet from us. She just stood there like a mannequin. Her cold eyes fixated on me. Because I was distracted, Zach stood up and started coming at me. His meltdown was likely a sensory-overwhelm, and I handled many of these episodes before…my goal was to get him to somewhere quiet, dim, and away from people.
I could wait him out right there among the evening gowns. But then I noticed the woman taking out a phone. UH-OH. When these type of episodes occur, you really don’t want to be videoed and put on social media.
While managing the slipping backpack and a screaming, frantic young man carrying an iPad, I stared her down. “We’re fine.” I confidently told her.
“Umm, I don’t think so.” She snapped. “I think I ought to call the police.”
Isn’t that just what a special needs parent in the middle of handling a meltdown needs? The police? My guess was that someone looking at us with no knowledge about autism would wrongly assume I was being attacked by a boy who just stole an iPad. Or, they’d figure we’d both stolen something since my backpack was the size of Rhode Island, and we were “hiding out” in the dress department during a rainstorm.
“No need for that,” I calmly told her. “We’re fine.”
She moved a couple of steps toward the escalator and then circled back. She was staring at me, at us, like a lion sizing up prey. She began to approach us, phone poised.
Zach was somehow calming down, and I laced my fingers into his. I squeezed. I hoped my nonverbal message of work with me here, kid was received. I couldn’t predict – he could have tackled me if he was still in the throes of the meltdown.
“I told you. We’re fine.” I went from Ginger Rogers to Sarah Connor.
She stopped walking, and glared at me. I glared back.
I hoisted the backpack and directed Zach toward the escalator. As we descended, I watched her carefully. Zach was alright and was working with me.
We made it to the ground floor, which was still flooded with people. I found an exit and out we went. Umbrella went up, and we walked along until I found an entryway to an office building where we regrouped. Not dim or empty, but out of the fray.
In a public situation that looks escalated or threatening in some way, people seem to react in one of three ways. They become like dolphins and form a protective ring around you. If they get involved, it is only to help. The helpers…like Mr. Rogers said.
Some people, however, become like sharks, hoping for something good to sink their teeth into. They seek the drama, and their interference is frightening and unwelcome.
Or, some act like ostriches and “bury their heads” in the sand. That’s okay, actually, because they remain neutral and let you mind your own business.
I hope you always have the dolphins around you and your child. And if you don’t, give those sharks a good bop on the head (figuratively speaking, of course).
Do Zach and I stay away from cities, bustling shopping plazas, and gigantic department stores now? Nope. Nuh-uh. No way.
We both have ways to manage, and situations like this one teach us about ourselves and others. And perhaps in some small way, others learn about families with special needs. I can only hope so.
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