Not All Screaming Children Are Dudley Dursley

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At the beginning of the month I mentioned that April is Autism Awareness Month and wrote a little about what autism actually is. Last week I wrote another post related to autism, but as you may have noticed, I did not post it. For whatever reason, it didn’t sit right with me and I didn’t have the time to come up with something else.

I have spent a good deal of time trying to figure out why it is that I am having such difficulty getting another post on this topic together and I believe I have figured out the problem. Last week I really wanted to put a face to autism, to show what it looks like in reality. I want to show how wonderful these children are and how the extra challenges they present are part of what makes them so wonderful. I want people to have patience with them and not judge them when they are having a difficult time. I want people to understand that in order to improve the behavior the parent or therapist may have to let it play out some.

The problem is, I can’t think of a way to do this without sharing specific stories of the kids I have worked with and, even with changing names and identifying information, this is not something I am comfortable with. I am going to try to talk about my experiences in a more general way, hopefully it works this time.

I have had the good fortune to work closely and develop special relationships with 7 different children with autism. All 7 children were incredibly different from each other and all 7 children were incredibly incredible. Each and every day one of them would do something to make me laugh or make me smile or melt my heart. Each and every day one of them would also do something to make me want to pull my hair out or scream. But I still loved them and all I wanted to do was find a way to help them.

Most of the children I worked with veered towards the middle or low functioning end of the spectrum. Communication was really difficult for them. This resulted in a lot of frustration on both sides as they tried to figure out ways to express what they wanted and needed while I tried desperately to figure it out. Sometimes we could figure it out together and sometimes the frustration would boil over into a tantrum. Sometimes these tantrums would happen in public.

One of the big things I worked on with my kids was being able to go out in public and behave appropriately. I would take them to places like the movie theater, out to eat in restaurants, to the store, etc. More times than not these outings went well, but sometimes they did not. In a way, this was good. I wanted the kids to have whatever challenges they were going to have with me so that I could shape their behavior and help them be able to tolerate and, hopefully, enjoy the outings so that they could participate with their families. This meant that I had to deal with the behaviors head on rather than escaping from the public environment as fast as I could. That was not always easy.

When you have a child screaming and thrashing about, people tend to stare and, on occasion, say something rude. As I am sure you can imagine, this does not help. As a therapist, not a parent, it was easier for me to ignore rude people, but all I could think during these situations was how hard it must be for the parents when the looks and murmurs are directed at them and their child. Those people passing judgement don’t know or understand the truth of the situation. To them, you are a bad parent and your kid is a brat. That is a hard pill to swallow, especially when you know that nothing could be further from the truth.

This may seem like a strange thing to talk about, but it is something that I think about a lot. I just love these kids so much and to see people look on them with judgement hurts. They are so much more than their behavior difficulties and I want people to see that. I want people to stop before passing judgement on a parent struggling with a child and acknowledge that they do not know the circumstances surrounding the behavior. I want people to give these kids and their parents the benefit of the doubt. I can’t tell you how many times one of my kids would pitch a royal fit the first time we tried a new activity only to grow to love it after being able to work through the behavior on several tries. So many kids miss out on this because of judgement they and their parents receive. This breaks my heart.

I hope that I haven’t come across as too soapboxy. I think it is obvious that this is an issue close to my heart. Now, I do understand that there is a limit to how much you allow a child to act out inside a restaurant, a movie theater, a library, etc. Sometimes it is necessary to take the child outside and help them calm down before returning and discretion must be used to determine what that threshold is. But the fact remains, a little tolerance and understanding from the bystanders around you can go a long way. You just never know if the child screaming a few tables over is a Dudley Dursley or a child doing the best he knows how with the toolset he possesses.

What do you think? Have you ever had an experience like this out in public? How did people react and how did those reactions affect you? If you haven’t experienced this personally, do you know someone who has? Or have you ever witnessed someone going through this? Let me know in the comments. Also, be sure to check back Friday for a very special guest post.

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20 responses »

  1. I’ll try not to get too long winded with back story here…A large portion of my life has been spent causing problems (drugs ‘n stuff, anti social behavior), hanging out in restaurants, and causing problems in restaurants. Not long after straightening out and finding something to do with my life I ended up having a little girl, who’s now two. Near as I can tell, and from what the doctors she’s seen have said, she doesn’t have any developmental issues…

    Now that context is somewhat out of the way..I can say that I sympathize with what you’re trying to do, but I have a huge pet peeve with children acting up in public. A lot of it depends on venue, as I think someone who goes into Chuck E Cheese for example and gets upset about the screaming kids is of poor intellect, but at the same time, I would be very upset if someone had a screaming kid in Apple Bees and didn’t leave. Obviously there’s a lot of middle ground here, and millions of examples to bounce back and forth with.

    Though I don’t think it’s helpful to say something snide or rude to an adult struggling with an unruly child (autistic or not), I do think people deserve to have a meal in peace and think if someone brings in a child that begins causing a problem, it’s their responsibility to handle the problem, not the other customers responsibility to be wholly understanding and patient.

    Hopefully I’m not coming across as an ogre here. It’s hard to articulate without typing up examples that I’ve seen and think are acceptable/not acceptable. I do think it’s a very good topic to bring up though, and I applaud you for doing so, as well as taking the time to get to know and care about people that are often overlooked, or worse, looked down on, by others.

    • “I do think people deserve to have a meal in peace and think if someone brings in a child that begins causing a problem, it’s their responsibility to handle the problem, not the other customers responsibility to be wholly understanding and patient.” – I absolutely agree with this, which is why I put in the comment at the end about there being a limit to how much you can allow inside of the venue. These issues need to be worked on gradually so as to minimize the discomfort of these situations. It is a very fine line to walk. But I do feel that more patience should be shown to an adult who is obviously addressing the issue rather than ignoring the fact that there is one. And if it is in a setting, like the restaurant, and the adult takes the child out, gets him calm, and comes back in I want people to give them a second chance. I can’t tell you how many times this happened with me. We could come back in and finish the meal, or whatever, with no other issues and people would still look at us aghast that we would dare to come back in.

      This is something that is not black and white. Every situation and circumstance is different and discretion must be used. It is just something to take into consideration. And no, you do not come across as an ogre. :)

  2. Okay, I’ll admit that I’m guilty of judging. I hate it when I’m out to dinner and am interrupted with a loud piercing schreech that breaks ear drums! I tend to pass judgment immediately. Bad me! I do know there are many, many people who face challenges in life and usually I am very tolerant of almost every situation. I appreciate it when a parent removes the child from the public place where screaming is not acceptable, but that does not happen often. And because it is so common, it’s hard to remember that sometimes there’s a reason for the outburst and sometimes it’s just a kid being a brat and a parent being a bad parent.

    I’m so glad that you have been able to spend time with these special children and learn about their challenges. Not enough people care enough to do that. You are a very caring person to not only take the time, but to pass along your empathy and words of advice to others.

    You are so right – we don’t know what’s going on in other peoples’ lives and we should cut them some slack, especially if it’s warranted. Thanks for presenting this topic in such a caring and respectful way.

    Patricia Rickrode
    w/a Jansen Schmidt

    • You are right, it is hard to not judge when so often, especially these days, those screaming kids are Dudley Dursley’s with awful parents. I think the big thing is, once the screaming and misbehavior starts, what does the adult do? If you see the adult actively trying to gain control of the situation, then try to give them a chance. I will reiterate, though, that there is a responsibility on behalf of the adult to respect the patrons around them if in a setting like a restaurant or movie by removing the child is she can not be calmed quickly.

      I hope that everyone who reads this is able to see the place that I am coming from as you did. Thank you.

  3. It is really difficult being a child period, special needs or not. And they shouldn’t be controlled by a parent. It takes time and energy to learn self-control. And parents cannot be expected to stay home because their child might be overwhelmed by emotion. It’s a rough world for us all.

    It’s a rare child who has tantrum because they are “a brat” as we label them. Children, especially children in the tantrum stage, are not screaming messes on the floor because they are trying to manipulate mom into giving into them. They just literally cannot handle hearing No (usually for the 100th or 300th time that day) and having all their hopes and dreams dashed. And when you are 4, that toy car is your ENTIRE world RIGHT NOW.

    How often are we putting our agenda’s on children, instead of letting them be children. Sit still, don’t scream, don’t make too much noise. Hello, this is what being a child is about. I admit there are some places where you have to minimize these things or just don’t go if you have a child who is prone to vocal expression ie the movie theatre is the last place on earth I’d take a 2 year old or a fancy restaurant with serious reinforcements for toys.

    But it’s really unfair to lay it on the parent. You aren’t controlling your child, your child is brat, you aren’t doing enough discipline.

    And it’s unfair to lay it on the child, because for the most part it is developmentally normal. For special needs children, their developmentally normal stages come, sometimes, years later. My 11 year old neice has Down Syndrome, if you ask her she’ll tell you she’s 4 and she acts like it. Sometimes she even believes her body is the size of a 4 year old and she’ll get in son’s stroller or swing.

    Okay this is a hot button for me and I rewrote this comment twice.

  4. they are great kiddos! and as a mom of one of the best, i just stare back when strangers look at us in public and when there’s a little misbehavior… sometimes if they stare at us too long, i even say something rude – just to break the ice ya know. sometimes i use: “he’s autistic, what’s your excuse?” or “did you need something because i’m gonna be a few minutes here” or ” welcome to the wonderful world of autism!”

    i don’t like hearing my son scream in a restaurant any more than any one else… especially when it’s directly in my ear. but if he’s not exposed he can’t be taught how to behave appropriately. and selfishly i just refuse to keep him locked up in his room away from society – so sorry!

  5. my son has autism and we have encountered this situation many times. most of the time i am immune to the staring of strangers because i understand; they just don’t get it. they really don’t know what it is like to have autism. they have no idea what it is like for my son to feel like his nervous system is under attack by a bombardment of constant, overwhelming stimuli that he cannot screen out and to then be woefully ill-equipped to express himself or his needs. when all the sights and sounds and smells become too much and he cannot articulate what he wants and he just needs some help to calm down, i AM that help. i walk him through the steps to find his way back to calm and i don’t give a damn what i look like or what scene we might be making in the process. it is obvious when my son is in this state that i am helping him and that he is trying to calm down. when a parent is actively addressing an unruly child, it is better than when they are ignoring one and i have seen THAT happen on far too many occasions for my taste. i will admit that there have been a few times where i have responded and said, “my son has autism and i have this under control. thank you.” but that’s about it. it has taken me years to find this sense of peace about the situation – my teenaged daughter hasn’t found that bliss yet. she gets very angry and finds it difficult to ignore. i remind her that it comes from a place of ignorance and that the more people interact with her brother and get to know him, the better it will be for everyone.

    • Thank you so much for this comment. It beautifully expresses what I was trying to say. This is why awareness is so important. Too many people have a complete misconception of hat autism is and what it looks like. I know of time when a parent has said made a comment to the rude person about the child having autism only to have the rude person respond back with something like, “So? You still need control your child.” Those people clearly have zero idea of what that parent and child’s reality is. I may not have a very big reach, but I hope I can bring some awareness with whatever reach I do have.

  6. Beautiful post once again, Jess. I went to Italy with a professor who had an autistic son. Sometimes it was difficult, as he would act out, but the wonderful thing was that NO ONE on the trip was annoyed or bothered by it. We all understood and accepted the fact that this would happen once in a while. He was a great kid and it was the first time I saw autism up close. What an eye opening experience, and one that I’m truly glad I had.

  7. I find it pretty surprising that people make comments about children having tantrums in public. I think that the difference between an autistic child’s tantrum and a spoiled child’s tantrum are very obvious. But, I guess that could be from years of teaching experience. I do give my “teacher look” to children misbehaving in public, but I don’t even look at the parents. The teacher look works on the kids and nothing is going to work on the parents. But when I see kids have great behavior in public, I always compliment the parents. With autistic kids tantruming, I think the best thing to do is just ignore it and let the parent (or therapist, you never know) handle it. Strangers are not going to be any help. And rude comments never help anyone.

    • It never ceases to amaze me just how rude people can be. There are many people who don’t care if the child tantruming is “spoiled” or special needs; they think the adult should be able to control the child either way. It all stems from ignorance. Anyone who has had first hand experience understands and it is next to impossible to explain that reality to someone who hasn’t experienced it. But that doesn’t mean I won’t continue to try.

  8. Beautiful post Jessica! My Godson is high functioning with Asperger syndrom and I’ve watched his mother struggle for years (although with lots of ABA therapy, his improvements have been astounding). For years, he’s been bullied at school, taunted, made fun of etc…because he’s different! But I couldn’t agree more with you – his differences are some of the things that make him so special, beautiful and remarkable. His literal view of the world gives him a sense of humor and perspective that is often so intuitive for a boy his age. And his habits and obsessions make him passionate and interesting! I often remind him that the struggles he faces as a pre-teen and teen won’t be as difficult as a adult where being a little different isn’t as challenging as it is now.
    From my Godson, I’ve definitely adopted a much more tolerate when viewing others…

  9. I have an autistic cousin, a good-natured 32-year-old person who happens to behave differently from most. When we go out in public, he can attract stares for his unconventional behavior, and we had reactions all over the place: people can be understanding, ignoring, annoyed, even offended. I’m glad to say that most people understand his (and his mother’s) situation and just go with it. But a minority conveys their displeasure via stares, body language, and even loud comments. Of course his family doesn’t go out for dinner if he’s had a bad day and they know he’ll be restless, but when odds are he is rested and relaxed, we do go. My cousin is a person with rights, the same rights as everybody else, and he does his best to behave in social situations.
    As for my feelings regarding loud (in voice or behavior) non-autistic kids, plese read Asrai’s comments above. She nailed it.
    One last note: the staff in restaurants, hotels, parks, stores almost always accomodate my cousin with smiles, grace, and generosity. Kudos to these fine professionals and nice people.

  10. My 5 year old son is autistic (high functioning). He is hyperactive. Before he started kindergarten it was a lot worse (he is super smart due to his obsession with academic things–school structure helped him enormously). I never really had trouble with tantrums from him. I know the places that i cannot take him, like the movie theater (I realize he would not be still or quiet so i would not want to do that to him or the other people in the theater)….other than that he can handle it. But when we would go to the store I would have to put him in the buggy because he would run off if i didn’t. He is very tall for his age and people would make comments to me about him being in the buggy (that he was too old and judging me for doing it). I would be nice at first and just comment that i knew it looked silly, then i got frustrated and started telling people that if they wanted to chase him when he ran off or wanted to hold his hand the whole time shopping they were more than welcome. They usually walked away when i said that LOL. I hope that one day people will be more understanding of the needs of autistic children. They have rights, feelings, and can and need love just like any other person. People also need to be more understanding of the parents. It took my son over a year to be diagnosed. He was diagnosed in May of this year and i am still learning new things about how to help him deal with/understand his needs. People (“adults” the majority of the time-which is sad) tend to judge the parents even when they are trying their best to support/teach their child how to behave in new situations. Thank you for putting out this awareness and i hope that it will be seen by individuals not affected by autism on a daily basis so they may have some insight into how life is with a child with special needs.

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