Yesterday, I went to a Halloween event with my child. There were lots of kids, costumes, foods, noises, games– it was fun, but it was a lot, sensory wise.
There were inflatables (bounce castles, slides, etc.) One big inflatable was an obstacle course. I saw a man walking back and forth along the side of the obstacle course trying to look in. He looked worried.
A boy who was larger than most of the kids was coming back to the beginning. The man working the obstacle course yelled into the inflatable tunnel, “You are going the wrong way. You have to turn around and come out the end.”
The man who had been walking the sides trying to look in heard this and walked over to the worker. He was the boy’s dad.
Without touching the worker, the dad stepped in front of him, using his body to block the worker from talking to the kid or to keep the kid from seeing the worker. As he did that, he simply told the man, “No. He doesn’t have to.”
The boy looked very overwhelmed. It was cold outside, but he was sweating so much his hair was wet and his face was blood red and full of worry. The dad knelt down and said, “It’s okay to change your mind.” He was smiling warmly and held out his arms.
The boy was breathing hard, and he was trying to crawl back. He kept falling over when most kids could easily walk or run on the inflatable surface. He looked seasick.
Being who I am, I recognized the apraxia (motor planning disability that makes coordinating movements difficult) and the vestibular instability (impaired sense of balance). I have the same struggles. I’m not a diagnostician, but I am familiar with autism enough to know that this child was probably autistic.
The worker started to say something to the boy about trying harder, and the dad turned around and gave him a very firm look. The worker shut up.
The dad reached in and held out his hand until the boy could reach it, then helped his son until he could exit the entrance. The conversation went something like this (paraphrased from memory):
Boy: I couldn’t (breathing hard)
Dad: Did you get dizzy
Boy: I didn’t know how to stop falling
Dad: That’s okay. It’s really jiggly in there
Boy: Sorry I could not know which way was the beginning
Dad: yeah, it’s like being in a washing machine in there, right?
Boy: sorry. Sorry. Sorry. I could not finish. Sorry.
Dad: hey, it’s no worries. You tried. You are allowed to change your mind. We are here to have fun, not do tests.
Boy: sorry. Sorry. Sorry. I’m sorry. Sorry.
Dad: Want to go try this game over here? You can bowl a pumpkin!
Boy: I’m sorry. Sorry. Sorry.
Dad: For what?! For saying what you need? For trying? You did everything right!
The boy gave his dad a big hug. He had stopped hyperventilating. The dad helped the boy get his
shoes back on and ignored everyone else’s existence.
As they were walking away, he said something else to his son about how they were there for him to have fun, and that meant trying new things if he wanted and changing his mind if he didn’t like them.
Your Autistic Child Is Not at the Same Event as You
Your autistic child— even if you are also autistic— is experiencing the world differently from you. They may have sensory issues that make things they love (like parties) very difficult.
Having fun at events designed for fun is more important than being “normal.” It’s more important than “toughing it out.” Being a well-adjusted, emotionally secure human means having the security to know that tolerating extreme distress is not a requirement for fun.
If this father had not intervened, the boy would likely have melted down after the worker kept trying to force him to finish the course. He would have been humiliated in front of his peers. Trying new things would have been associated with trauma and fear of taking risks.
The dad’s night would have been miserable, too. No one in that situation would be looking forward to the next event.
You don’t have to understand vestibular instability and motor planning disability to believe that if a kid is not having a good time, and they look distressed, there’s a reason for it. Kids don’t just profusely sweat and hyperventilate doing a party activity because they’re “snowflakes.”
In most similar instances I’ve witnessed, especially with support/intervention workers, this would have been an “opportunity” to work on “distress tolerance.” The parents would have been encouraged to force the disoriented child to persist. The meltdown would have been associated with loss of “rewards.”
But the way this dad treated his son made it possible for him to take a risk, accept disappointment (what may have felt like a failure), and to regulate enough to keep trying to have a good time in other ways.
Can you imagine what a bad idea it is to condition autistic kids to ignore their instincts and distress at parties and to accept what makes them uncomfortable? How will that pan out at high school and college parties?
Shout out to that father, and to all of you wonderful parents, educators, support workers, and service providers standing up for autistic children so they can learn how to have fun on their terms, be autonomous, take risks, play, and experience difficult things because they have the skills and confidence to back out and recalibrate when the “normal” way to engage isn’t working for them.
Have a safe and happy season, everyone.
- What autistics mean when we say this world is not made for us: How fun activities push autistics into the margins - December 23, 2022
- Being a Great Parent to Your Autistic Child at Fall Festivals and Halloween Events - October 31, 2022
- Who Am I? Printable Resource for Connecting with Your Core Self - October 3, 2022
As I said on Facebook, that dad got it spot on!
That dad-son conversation just about brought me to tears. Sharing this type of support and guidance for parents also helps those of us who were told to tough it out as kids and are trying to figure out what a healthier response to our own reactions might be.
That father-son exchange almost made me cry. For those of us who were instructed to “tough it out” as children and are attempting to determine what a healthier approach to our own reactions might be, providing this kind of support and advice for parents also helps.