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  • Writer's pictureDanielle James

How to handle onlookers when your autistic child is struggling?

Updated: Sep 30, 2018

I just wanted to take my child and leave school, like every other parent was doing in the school playground. Surely that's not too much to ask or desire? However, my child's day did not go to plan so now he was refusing to leave, verbally broadcasting his anger and upset to everyone.

The pressure was on - teachers, parents, his peers and other children were looking on - how was I going to handle this? I could feel the judgements and stares 'He's far too old to be behaving like that' 'here he goes again' 'whats happening at home, that he refuses to leave school?' I could also feel the curiosity and the people who wanted to learn, watching my every move. Some people would hurry by or give looks of pity. I was so aware of my younger children, waiting to take the opportunity to go off and explore, whilst I was dealing with a hostile negotiation...


It defies logic, not to want to go home when you've had a bad day but for my son, this is how he dealt with 'those' days. He wanted a re-do but we can't re-do the day, we can only try again tomorrow. His mind is fixed (rigid thinking) and doesn't understand why, even though I have explained this to him a million times before. Even though he is usually very logical, he is still very young and this was perfect logic, to himself.


Deep breath, ignore the stares, just focus on whats important. I need to take my distressed child home - think big picture. Thankfully he has not yet scaled up the building and I'm not yet trying to get him down safely from a shed roof - so there's a quick win. He's not in full on meltdown mode but very close. Once he gets to that stage, there's nothing to be done but wait it out and try and keep him safe. I recall my training. I can do this.

I call out his name and I use basic sign language to help with his communication. I change my language to basic pigeon English, using signs to emphasise the key points to my sentence, so that he does not have complex words and sentences to process, on top of all his overwhelming feelings. The sign language also helps defeat the onlookers - the way I speak and move, shows them that this is not just a spoilt kid having a tantrum - there is far more going on (its as much for their benefit, as it his). I speak in a calm but firm manner, assuring myself, the onlookers and my son that its okay and I can control this situation. I need to focus on my son, calming him so we can leave.

I state that its time to go home (first) and then I use motivators (then) to encourage him to do the first part. This can take a while but the 'first' can not change, we need to leave school - eventually I will find the right motivator - normally a food, computer time, programme on TV or at that point in time (moshi monster) cards. I just have to keep calm, cool and confident. I've done this before and it works.

He is too big and strong for me to scoop up and put in the car. I had younger children with me and he can escape the car seat/seat belts etc. One time I tried driving home whilst he was very distressed, he got out of his seat and strangled me from behind whilst I was driving. Thankfully I was able to pull over safely without veering off the road. He is a Houdini and whilst there are SEN gadgets to stop the seat belt coming off, they cost way out of our budget and they are not easy to fit on a reluctant child. I need to get him in the car calmly because no other way would work - I know, I'd tried and it is not worth the risk. I also needed to strap in my other children, fold down the pushchair and put that in the car too. This is not an easy task.

I kept using the same words, in the same manner and then eventually we came to an agreement - - extra computer time and a yogurt snack! Once the agreement was made, it has to be done there and then, to avoid starting all over again. Although grumpy, he gets in the car. I try my best to scoop up the younger children and get them in the car, praying to get this done, as smoothly and as quickly as possible.

We get home and then I get the snack and help him to get on his computer before anything else. Once he's settled I'm then free, I can breathe. I want to collapse on the sofa but instead I have younger children who also want the snack and dinner to prepare. I have to affirm them for making the right choices, if they just stayed by my side and behaved well. If they didn't, I have to go through the training with them. I have to do that straight away, as they are young and too much of a time lapse means they won't understand. At this point they are all aged under 5. I'm fighting the voices in my head that he always gets his own way and I tell them - 'big picture I wanted to get home, safely. We did. He has a snack, that I offered him, that is healthy. He's playing on cbeebies website, which is educational and He is calm. He cannot help this, his mind is wired differently. This has been a success, we are home safely.'

I'm trying not to recall the stares, the tuts or comments. When they come I have to deflect them with truth - My son is different, not less. My parenting may look different, but I am not less. I made good choices for all of us. These techniques work, we are home, we are safe. I learned these techniques from doing the National Autistic Society Earlybird Plus course.

My mental health, means I really have to speak truth over this, so I do not get consumed. Living like this is exhausting but there is no other way. I know I'll need to rest to recover but sometimes it seems easier to bury myself in tasks, so I don't dwell. It can be a fine line to balance.

Not everyone will have mental health struggles, alongside this. If you do - re-frame the negative thoughts with truth. Make sure you and your children have downtime to recover from this situation. I'm not a doctor but highly stressful situations will have created physical changes within your body - chemicals Adrenalin and cortisol in your body. It is good to learn how to cope and look after yourself in stressful situations.


Deep breath and recall the techniques

Use signs, visuals, basic language. This outwardly shows that this is a SEN situation not a tantrum.

Do not make eye contact with the onlookers, focus on your child and technique. This is how you will get through the situation.

First and Then, method. Don't loose faith, keep going, keep calm.

In the back of your mind, remember the successes, pray, speak truth, focus.

From experience, the more you manage a successful struggle, the more your confidence increase. The effect of this means the stares/comments/inner negative dialogue etc has less impact upon you.

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