People seemed to freeze in their movements as my son, Frankie, ran through the parking lot screaming “Nooo!” I avoided eye contact and hurried to catch him before we provided the store’s entertainment for the day. I tried not to show fear and kept a straight face as I hurried to catch him. If I couldn’t redirect him, we would have a problem. I’ve had over 25 years of practice dealing with public meltdowns with Frankie, who’s autistic. He’s now 31 years old and six feet tall. He doesn’t articulate his frustrations, so I have to prepare and try to avoid things that may trigger his anger.
“Stop, don’t go into the store.” I yelled after him.
I’ve observed with amazement when doctors, policeman, and news reporters give someone a tragic report all while keeping a straight face. In my research and experience working through many embarrassing or unexpected impromptu situations, I had to control showing my emotions. As a special needs mother, getting accustomed to people staring or watching us in public is a challenge. I still struggle with control, but I’ve learned a few things.
That day when I caught up with Frankie just before he entered the entry doors, I pulled him aside. I told him, sternly, “Hold on. We can go get some hot fries if you go back to the car.” He loves food. I wondered if it was because I had to make another stop before we went to eat that upset him? I don’t know. The National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Strokes (NINDS) lists one symptom of autism that families must deal with is an inflexible adherence to specific routines or rituals. A change or unexpected detour upsets him immensely.
His eyes were red, he was breathing hard, and he appeared pained while I talked sternly to him. “Can you stay? Or must we leave?” I wondered who would help me get him to the car if he started running again.
“Go!” His voice blasted over the parking lot. Then he crossed his arms defiantly. I wondered if people thought I had done something to him. Some scooted by us, hurrying into the store as if avoiding a burning fire.
What do you do when a child or adult with an autism spectrum diagnosis exhibits socially-unacceptable behaviors in public? Staring, standing too close, bumping into someone without saying, “excuse me.” I’ve scurried to apologize many times before someone became upset with him. Well, that time in front of the store, I had to wait out his angry outburst, allowing time for him to vent and hopefully calm down. Sometimes it’s a few minutes. And sometimes my husband, other son, or I have had to drag him away from the public. Then we would let him scream or repeat unfamiliar phrases until he was exhausted. He often repeats words or phrases he’s overheard somewhere at random times.
After a few minutes, luckily, he wiped his eyes and, that time, the mention of the fries worked. He pivoted and walked to the car. I took several deep breaths and then followed behind him, shaking my head.
In the U.S., 1 in 68 children are on the autism spectrum, per (CDC 2014) reports. My mind turned over how family and friends had advised us over the years to institutionalize Frankie. I often wonder why I’m not institutionalized? Prior to having Frankie, I avoided situations where I was the center of attention, because I’d become so nervous I’d fumble my words, show fear, or evade snail-like from the limelight. But now, without a choice, I’ve learned to keep a calmer face in tense situations.
Here are a few tips that have helped me:
1. Don’t overreact
Several times, I’m tense and clenching my fists while deciding if we should go or if he will get quiet. If I remain calm and keep my voice low and steady, then most times, I can talk Frankie into calming down. We both didn’t need to lose our composure. For example, when we’re in a crowded restaurant, he may get edgy and start blurting out something he’s overheard, such as, “To the moon, to the moon.” And then, he’ll burst out laughing. I concentrate on getting him quiet, not on who’s watching us.
2. Focus on the positive
Instead of worrying about being escorted out by a security guard or business manager, I think of how I can make Frankie aware of where we are: in a meeting, café, church, or another outing. I always carry pen and paper in my purse to give him simple math or word problems to answer, and that helps redirect his thoughts. Keeping a positive view of us getting things under control and being able to stay in our current location allows me to keep a straight face—even when I think people seem surprised I’m not panicking when he acts out. Now sometimes, he’ll do something nice in public, like suddenly say “thank you” to someone’s kindness. Yes, I do allow myself to smile.
3. Find a good outlet afterward
There are times when I get home and think about what just happened. I let Frankie go inside while I sit in my car and cry. Or, I may phone a close friend, family member, or my husband and blurt out: “You won’t believe what I just went through.” They empathize or help me laugh about it. Then I go inside to play the piano. Loud, banging songs. Or if there’s any pesky, prickly crabgrass or nutsedge weeds in my flowerbed, I yank them up one-by-one. Then, sometimes, I take a long walk down one of the roads near our house.
Who would’ve thought I’d still be supervising the daily concerns of my special needs child who’s now an adult? But it’s the hand I was dealt. And just like in a poker game, I try to keep a straight face and stay in the game.
Cynthia L. Matlock is the mother of a 31-year-old son with autism who was diagnosed at age three. She helps manage a small cattle ranch and writes part time. She is a graduate of Texas Partners in Policy Making, which is a state disability advocate group that learns how to work with school’s special education departments, local law enforcement agencies, and state legislators for benefits and rights for disabled people.
This article was featured in Issue 59 – Top Strategies, Therapies and Treatments for Autism