Those first few years, I struggled with explanations about my son’s differences. The grocery store checkout is a stage of many memories where I’ve bumbled through awkward explanations about my son’s medical challenges and how they related to the more obvious signs: the feeding tube, eye patch, orthotics, gait trainer, helmet, and other unusual accessories.
People often ask me about my child’s differences. Most commonly, I am asked “What’s that for?” or “Why is he wearing that?” although I am sometimes asked, “What’s wrong with him?”. Sometimes people make crude comments such as, “Your child is too big for that toy.” or “Put him on the ground and let him walk, he’s too big to be carried around by his mommy”. Questions are almost always friendly, but comments and remarks are often not.
It is my job to keep my child with special needs safe in the community and the community safe from him. Just like everyone else, I find myself trapped at the grocery store eight carts from the checkout with a toddler who might have bad behaviors just like any neurotypical child. However, due to his neurological and communication challenges, behaviors may escalate to the point of danger and without much notice. For example, he might start banging his head, so I buy a bag of brown sugar to protect his head from the cart rail. Cool, now we’re safe, but I have no idea what to say to the dozens of curious onlookers, or what they’ll say to me.
Bizarre comments from the community can happen to anyone, but they’re much more likely going to happen to a challenged parent. Keep your spirits up by adding favored food to the shopping cart as needed, and be prepared to respond with these three steps:
Step 1 – Be Cool As a Cucumber By Checking Your Emotions Ahead Of Time
It took me many trials before I defined the best course of action for me during difficult moments. My way is to slow down when things get tense, which allows me to be more in control when my child’s behaviors escalate. If possible, we abandon the cart by the exit door or freezer section, telling a store attendant we will be back for our things when we are calm, and we wait outside where it’s ok to be loud.
Ultimately, whether you respond with compassion, hostility, impatience, ignoring, evacuating, promotion of awareness or acceptance, your way of response should be consistent with and reflecting of the principles you are teaching your child.
We live in an era where a stranger could record and syndicate those moments before you even leave the store, so considering anything you say or do a potentially permanent impression on the world, too.
I get nervous about any confrontation in front of my child and in public. My feelings get hurt. I get angry and fiercely protective. My throat chokes and my eyes fill with tears; sometimes I even get hives. I don’t cry during confrontations or behavior escalations, but an, “Are you ok?” will get an honest response.
Challenged parents absorb a lot of ugly words from the world. One could develop an ulcer simply recounting stories told by friends. We must deal with a cruel and insensitive world, and the fact that we will someday leave our potentially lifelong dependent alone in it. A public scene is a stark reminder of all our fears, but it is also a stage where we challenged parents can sow seeds of compassion and acceptance; a teachable moment for student and society.
I would rather have my groceries delivered for the next decade and never ever have to deal with these situations. but my child deserves to be a part of the community as much as anyone else. If we don’t give trials and patience to the learning process, he won’t grow to connect to his community in a meaningful way.
By responding with consistency and keeping a level head, your child can succeed in an important way. Set your child up to succeed in little ways first. Perhaps only visit part of the store on this trip so you can build from those positive associations next time. Our Ever-Learning site has tools and techniques to help you take control in situations and social stories to introduce your child to society.
Step 2 – Pick a Peck Of Pickled Preparation
My way of coping with difficult situations was to shop during non-peak hours and wear a baby carrier, but we’re out in the community every day with appointments all over the bustling metro area of Seattle.
I have a short string of responses for when people ask about his differences.
What helps me the most is to have a first line of responses ready for when people ask a question about my son’s differences and when dealing with a rude person. Here are two approaches I recommend for handling difficult public parenting scenarios:
- First, originated by my former coworker Steve, a martial arts expert and parent of a teenager with Autism. He responds to people’s ignorant remarks by asking, “Why would you say that?”. He says people are often surprised by this question, and they won’t be able to respond immediately, so it lends you time to prepare your response. I have found Steve’s neutral approach to be 100% successful in 27 trials, and it is my go-to response to deflect rude or inappropriate comments.
- A second option is to very slowly and loudly repeat back to them what was said to you. Janae, the OG of this approach, accompanies her response with a monotone voice and a laser death stare. She won’t wait around for the response, she’s got places to be, and no patience for rudeness. In my experience slowly parroting back rude comments usually scares the person away, but they often make even more ignorant comments as they walk away, so be prepared for that. This approach can also get onlookers involved, so be cautious as raising your voice can escalate the situation.
In these teaching moments, your role is to buffer them into a very impatient society, and confrontations can be an emotional setback for you and your child. You can avoid most confrontations by keeping a strong, consistent, and positive tone, but that takes a lot of practice. Deflecting responses with a prepared line of questions will help you keep your composure so that you can demonstrate and pass on such skills to your child.
Step 3 – Can You Be Helped?
What do you do when a community member offers to help you during a difficult situation? This is very kind, but we usually don’t know how that stranger can help us in that moment, so we usually thank but dismiss their offer. It is rare that anyone will offer help after that; people will assume you do not want help. If my child escalates, I do need help, so my best strategy is to accept help as soon as it is offered.
I am amazed by how many times people try to offer me candy to give to my toddler when he is melting down in public. Hey, People, I will gladly accept your (please not from the bottom of your purse) candy, but consider offering it for both of us to share. This way, I can divide the candy, start eating my half, and kiddo can have his when he’s making better choices.
If someone offers to help me, I assign them to a task right away, keeping specific things in mind. “Yes, I forgot pickles, dill, crinkle slices, store brand is fine. Would you be so kind as to get that for me?”. The people around us seem immediately reassured. There is a visible difference in the people around me when the problem is resolved or if I am offered help. Even completely disengaged humans will look up from their screens to smile at the sight of a family being helped or a problem being resolved.
What I discovered as the greatest quality and commonality in the average American is their willingness to stop and help someone.
I encourage you to try being more help-able so that you can experience this beautiful human quality, and try to be more specific when offering your help to others.
The human mind struggles to break its eyes from objects that spark interest; people simply can’t help it. Many people just say whatever is on their mind, but sometimes people are just mean.
The public domain may make you feel like a moving museum, but you can learn to embrace it as a rewarding challenge.
As a challenged parent, if there’s one thing we know how to be, it’s a boss in a challenging situation.
Our patience and coolness will seem unconquerable to the average human, the average problem, and to the cruel or ignorant remarks of strangers. If we want our children to grow up in a more kind and supportive community, we need to be teachers of compassion and patience when we are out in the community handling these difficult situations.
Special Learning delivers a suite of virtual education training and tools formulated by experts of Applied Behavior Analysis to serve the autism and special needs community across the globe.