The kindness of a stranger saves a mom during her autistic son's meltdown

A simple reassurance can make a big difference

 
 

Julie Peters

I wish I could thank the man who helped me when my son melted down in the grocery store. The crisis erupted over a box of doughnuts, which my 13-year-old son, who has Fragile X Syndrome and autism, decided he wanted.

I said no, and in a flash, he attacked. He grabbed my hair and wrenched my neck. He bit my wrist, breaking the skin through my winter coat. He attacked again and again.

I tried to contain his fury by lying on top of him without applying too much pressure, quietly saying no, and doing what I could to calm him enough so I could get out of the store.

Then a man-a father, I imagine-asked "How can I help?"

"I'm OK," I answered, which was absurd. Clearly I wasn't, and he wasn't buying it.

"Can I help you hold him?"

I told him no. I mumbled something about autism. I couldn't figure out how to explain what was happening.

"I really don't know what I need right now," I replied. I decided that I wanted to re-establish some kind of order. "Could you take this basket of things and make sure they get back on the shelf?"

And then the man looked at me and said, "You are an amazing mother. You are an amazing mother!" He took the basket and was gone.

Amazing? I didn't feel amazing. I felt powerless. Planless. Embarrassed. Frightened.

After about five minutes, I managed to get Colin to a state where I could hand him a smaller box of doughnuts, check out and lead him away.

This kind of thing doesn't happen every day. Most days my son is a sweet, dear child. But he has a genetic disorder that has rendered him unable to speak and often unable to cope with even the most basic social situations. His senses can become overwhelmed in an instant. He is missing a protein that helps regulate his anxiety, and his aggression has become increasingly intense with adolescence.

It was the second week of winter break. Breaks from school always are challenging because there are so few things my son can or wants to do besides watch YouTube or videos.  His world is very small, even compared to other children with Fragile X.

And I also was out of bread and bananas. It seemed like a simple enough idea: Go in the store, let him look at videos and books, get the food and leave. If he refused to get out of the car, we would go. I had learned not ever to push it when he made his feelings clear.

One of our long-term goals for Colin is to teach him how to handle places like grocery stores. Eventually we'd like him to be able to shop for familiar items, integrating academic skills like math and reading into simple, functional tasks.

Much to my surprise, Colin got out of the car. He was silly and a bit hyperactive. As I look back now, I can see the signs of hyper-arousal, a dead giveaway that the crisis was already brewing.

We hadn't been to the grocery store for such a long time that I was beguiled by his glee. First we went to the books and movies. He skipped and flapped and shrieked happily as I guided him to the produce section.

"Let's get bananas. Can you give mommy some bananas?" He complied again. We walked to the bread aisle. I put a loaf in the basket and then, suddenly, we were in trouble. On a display table were boxes and boxes of doughnuts, another of Colin's latest-for lack of a better word-interests.

He grabbed the biggest box, two dozen.

I constantly am searching for the line between doing what any normal parent has the right to do and what I can do with a special needs child. How much can I give in to his demands without letting him turn into a brat?

In the same instant I was about to negotiate for a smaller box he struck so suddenly that my rational thinking about parenting philosophy switched instantly to crisis mode.

My sweet, lovely child suddenly had become a wild animal. I pinned him to the ground. Then the man arrived, and somehow, I was able to buy a smaller box of doughnuts and get us out of the store.

As we stumbled through the parking lot, Colin pulled my hair again and again, like a series of aftershocks. He cried and I cried, too. As we walked, Colin clutched the doughnuts so fiercely that one by one, the doughnuts began to fall. The last one dropped out and I saw it roll away.

I maneuvered Colin into the car and closed the door. I needed a moment to cry. I wept as I leaned against the car. I was freezing. I was in pain. I was angry.

Colin was crying, too. The crumpled, empty doughnut box sat beside him.

His iPad has hundreds of words, but in these moments-especially in these moments-he cannot access abstract words or ask questions. He only can rage and cry, and I only can cry, feeling sorry for myself and ultimately, heartbroken for him.

Later that evening, though my body felt like I had been in a car accident, I made bread. It was an act of both defiance and healing. I replayed the episode in my head, searching for some kind of lesson.

The stranger's words puzzled me. "You are an amazing mother."

What could he have possibly meant by that?

I made so many mistakes that day, mistakes that years of dealing with my son's disability have taught me not to make. I should have said yes to the bigger box of doughnuts right away, without giving a damn what anyone watching might have thought of my parenting skills. I should have seen Colin's hyper-arousal building. I should have known what to say when someone asked if he could help.

I need to learn crisis intervention strategies that will help me properly and safely handle Colin's aggression. I need to bring a visual schedule and set clear expectations.

The stakes have clearly gotten too high to wing it anymore.

Amazing?

I was careless. I put us both in danger.

Colin inspires me, my husband, and his teachers to rail against the disability that threatens to lock him down in a very small world. But taking him out in public is going to take a lot of careful planning and a lot of work from now on.

Amazing? I'm not convinced.

I am, however, so grateful to the stranger who told me I was. He has forced me to rethink everything, so that next time I will be ready.

And if you happen to know the stranger who so graciously tried to help on Jan. 3 at the Meijer in Plainfield, please tell him thank you.

 
 
 





 
 
 
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