Handling a Meltdown in Public

Any parent who is raising a child with autism will tell you that meltdowns are more common in public locations. Stores, malls, fairs—anywhere there are a lot of people, activity, and noise raises the odds of a meltdown. It is common enough that many parents will do anything they can to avoid being in those environments with their child.

To Market, To Market

Inevitably, your child will experience a meltdown in a large, brightly lit variety store. Every parent knows about these stores—the one-stop shopping that turns into an ordeal and fiasco. A parent related the following story about her son, and any parent of a child with autism will laugh and cry at the same time; they all know what this is like.

“We went in for groceries and various items. It was a big shopping trip and I couldn't find a babysitter that day. I also couldn't put it off any longer. We did okay until we went by the home gardening section. A big, and I mean very big, lawn sprinkler was on display—a sprinkler that was a dead ringer for the tractor that my little boy loves, all bright green and yellow and just about the right size for him to sit on. At first he quietly asked ‘tractor,’ or, should I say, demanded it. I could see the look. I knew he had decided the “tractor” was coming home with us. And I knew it wasn't. The volume of his voice went higher and

higher until you could hear the word tractor being screeched all over the store! We made our way to the checkout line, but by then, he was in complete meltdown. I am sure everyone thought I was the meanest mom in the world for not buying my little boy a toy tractor. The meltdown continued into the parking lot and into the car; he was sweating, crying, screaming, and attempting to hit anything or anyone he could. He totally lost it. I was exhausted and so was he.” She added, “I now make an extra effort to find a babysitter and have my radar up to scope out the aisles around us to avoid any more tractors.”


If your child begins a meltdown by putting his hands over his ears or eyes, you can be sure he is experiencing sensory overload. He might even cover your mouth with his hand to prevent another sound. The best thing is to move him to a low-sensory environment; a dark, quiet, and cool place will help.

This mom handled a difficult situation well. She had shopping that had to be done; this wasn't an optional trip to the store. And once the meltdown was in full swing, she was almost done. It wouldn't have been convenient for her to leave the store and return later to redo an enormous shopping. She kept her cool, didn't give in, and didn't worry about the opinions of others while her son spun totally out of control.

The Rudeness of Others

The little boy with, or in this case without, the tractor had a real advantage that day. His mother was not threatened or concerned about the opinions of others. It has been said that parents of kids with special needs have to develop thicker skins, and it must be true. But regardless of how thick-skinned you are, an insult to your child cuts, and cuts deeply.

For some reason, in public, many people feel it is their duty to point out all of the mistakes they believe you are making in raising your child. This is even more common if your child is mentally challenged or if the child “expert” has no children. Just remember: You can't change the world; you can only change your little corner of it. How your child feels and how you affect his life are far more important.

Keep in mind that some people are receptive to learning and you may have a chance to educate someone about autism. There are also subtle clues you can use to notify people without saying a word that you have a child with special needs. An example would be signing to your child.


Someone called my child a cruel name. Best advice?

If the person called your child a goat, it wouldn't make him one. However, it is hurtful and shows a lack of knowledge and sensitivity. A simple explanation is wise if you feel the individual is receptive. Otherwise, ignore it. The person can move on to be unpleasant somewhere else.

It is very common for people in public places such as the store in the tractor incident to stare and make comments very critical of a child in the middle of a meltdown. People will say things about your lack of control over your child or direct unflattering comments toward your child, and as much as you would like to throttle them or talk back, resist the urge. Excuse your child's behavior politely with the brief explanation of “he is disabled,” and drop it. If a person persists in making comments and it is clear he is not interested in educating himself, move yourself and your child to another location. If, on the other hand, it is a staff member who is making snide comments at the place you are visiting, ask to speak with a manager. The supervisor needs to know that the staff member does not understand the problems of a child with a disability and steps should be taken to educate the individual.

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