He reached out and slapped me.
If it had been just any sixteen-year-old teenage boy, I would have been offended. I may have even slapped him back. But I had seen him and his dad five minutes earlier at the ticket counter, and they were getting passes to Peter Rabbit.
The boy caught my eye because he had his hands up. I have a son who is twenty-eight and has severe autism, his name is Kyle. Most persons who have autism keep their hands up near their chest or somewhere in front of them. Their arms aren’t usually hanging down, relaxed, near their pockets.
I’m not supposed to stare at other families when they are out with their special needs child. Call me the autism police. I can’t help myself. I watch to see if their families are taking good care of them.
This boy’s dad had his arm in a sling, and I wondered if he had hurt himself protecting his son. That has happened to both my husband Vance and I.
The father and son pulled up behind Vance and me at the food counter. The boy couldn’t stay still and moved out of line and was now standing beside me. His dad cornered him between the pop cooler and the counter and had his good arm up between the boy and me.
I turned and smiled at the boy, giving him an assurance that he was going to be okay. Then he reached over his dad’s arm and slapped my shoulder. The dad apologized. The boy said hi to me. I greeted him back.
“Do you have a cane, do you have a cane, do you have a cane?” He asked.
“No, I don’t have a cane,” I replied.
“Can I pull the fire alarm? Can I pull the fire alarm? Can I pull the fire alarm?”
“No, you can’t pull the fire alarm.” His dad said calmly.
“We have a twenty-eight-year-old son who likes to pull fire alarms. We understand.” I said, letting his dad know we were parents of a special needs child too.
Vance piped in. “Our son has pulled a few fire alarms.”
Kyle has taught us a great deal about what it’s like to live in a body you can’t always control.
The dad smiled at us knowingly. We wanted him to know we were okay with his son’s behaviour and he could relax.
For the most part, I know what to do around a child with autism to help alleviate the parents and child’s stress. But many people do not. If you don’t have any life experience with these exceptional children, you may find these tips helpful.
1. Don’t stare. Okay I know I didn’t follow this tip. People stared at us when we were out as a family, especially when Kyle was younger and made a lot of noise. This caused our anxiety to increase, knowing everyone was watching our son’s behaviour. When the parent anxiety rises so does the child’s behaviours.
2. Don’t assume every seven years old who is having a fit on the floor needs a spanking or their parents need a course in parenting. Some children with autism are high functioning and verbal. If something seems out of place to them, this can trigger an anxiety attack. This is not the time for you to give parenting tips. Now would be a good time for you to check your messages on your phone and provide the child and parent with some space.
3. Talking in a loud voice because you think the child will understand you better, makes you sound like a robot. Unless the child has a hearing problem, they most likely hear like everyone else. There’s no need to raise your voice or talk more slowly than usual.
4. Do not offer the child gum, candy or snacks. Many children and adults with autism are on special diets, they may be on a gluten-free or dairy-free diet. Ask their caregiver or parent quietly if you can give them a treat.
5. Talking about the special needs child or adult in front of them, as though they are not in the room, is highly offensive to them. Just like it is highly offensive to you if someone talks about you. Include them in on the conversation so they feel part of the group.
6. Keep the noise levels down to a bare minimum when you invite a person with autism to your home or special event. Many people with autism cannot filter out all the different noises going on in a room. This is why you sometimes see them with ear muffs on. If you have another place available that is quiet, offer it as a noise-free area for the child to go to when they need a break.
7. Allow the child to enter your personal space instead of stepping into theirs. Some persons with autism will panic if people step to close to them or touch them.
8. Behaviours can surface that a person with autism regrets, but cannot be controlled in the moment. Our son has destroyed our possessions in an anxiety attack, but later he feels terrible about what he has done. Chewing them out for their actions is counterproductive and may cause them to avoid social interactions so they don’t fail again. Being patient and kind with a person with autism helps them to see their actions are forgivable.
9. Always acknowledge the child and say hello to them. Ask the parent privately if their child likes being asked questions. Some children with autism will panic if peppered with too many questions, so ask one at a time and wait a minute for the answer.
10. Most persons with autism thrive on verbal praise, so tell them if you like something about them. Our son Kyle loves being told he is handsome or smart. Persons with autism are quick to pick up on whether people like them or not. Do your best to make them feel like they are the best thing since sliced bread. They will most likely give you a smile, high five, or eye contact.
Parenting a child with autism is one of the most difficult experiences I have had in my lifetime. It is also one of the most joyous. We celebrate small triumphs like when Kyle sleeps all night or wears his socks. But one of the most rewarding parts of this journey is when we see someone become Kyle’s friend. This is when he feels normal.
Autism or no autism every person wants to be respected, loved and valued. My son is no different, he is just like you💗
*If you have more tips that will be useful to others learning about autism please add them in the comment section of this post.