Many Special Needs families have learned to rearrange their social life once their child is diagnosed with Autism. There are many reasons for this but from my own personal experience, I thought I would share how we manage our social outings and what we do to prepare for them. I was recently reading comments from other autism moms who decided to forego celebrating Mother’s Day out at a restaurant because they’d rather not have to deal with all the stares and comments about their child. This made me feel sad and I get it, I’ve been there and still struggle with it as well. But I don’t want special needs parents to hide in their home to avoid a possible scene. Yes, maybe it’s easier for me to say this now, my son was diagnosed five years ago, so we have learned how to manage social situations.
Prior to Michael’s diagnosis, going out would be a nightmare. At that time, he had frequent tantrums and meltdowns that would put your average 2-year-old to shame. It was difficult trying to figure out what to do or say. Most of the time, when it became obvious that he was not going to calm down any time soon, we would leave. Not ideal, especially if you were at a restaurant and already ordered your food. We would end up asking the waitress or waiter to wrap our dinner to go. It can be very frustrating.
After his diagnosis, we started to understand the reasons for his tantrums and it became easier to learn the triggers and what to do to help him through these moments. It wasn’t an overnight fix or full proof all the time, but we had some tools we could use to help during these situations.
After Michael started his Early Intervention, then his home therapy, there were definite changes in his behavior. He rarely has a tantrum and when he does, we are prepared and know what to do. However, going to a restaurant, church, a shopping mall, and/or a party at someone’s home can be tricky. Honestly, it can be exhausting as well. You are always on guard and constantly on the move. Because my son has a fascination with any kind of strings and/or wires, if there is any exposed you can be sure he is going for it. I am always telling family and friends before we arrive, if you have anything you really love in your home, remove it before we get there. No one ever believes me and sometimes things break or are damaged.
So now we have a way of gauging how Michael will be at certain situations and whether it’s best for us to attend or pass on an event. First, time of the day has everything to do with it. The best time for Michael is morning and afternoon. Anything after 6PM, you can forget it. Although there are rare occasions when he is okay, I don’t like to take the chance. This year, our Christmas Eve together at my Aunt’s home, was later in the afternoon and I knew we were taking a chance, but I always do my best to at least try. Although Michael was visibly uncomfortable (hands on ears, pacing the rooms, handing me his coat), after some time, he adapted well, and he made it through.
When it comes to restaurants or public places such as stores, malls, and churches, we are continually working to figure out the best way for Michael to get through it. Currently, attending mass is going well. When we first started bringing our boys to church, we didn’t know what to expect. We packed enough Goldfish to last us a week and promised lollipops if they sat quietly during mass. To our surprise, it works! As they have gotten used to going, now we have the occasional escape artist when Michael is feeling ready to explore on his own. Nothing like watching a mom and dad running through the aisles praying to Jesus that he doesn’t run out the door (while everyone else is quietly laughing and whispering). Yes, good times. However, we have a routine and that seems to keep them both in check. We sit in the very last pew of our church. If either one of them gets a little rambunctious, we are closer to the vestibule for a little time out. What I have noticed at least in church, sometimes it’s the more neurotypical kids making more noise, so it’s not so strange for kids to be rowdy during mass… It happens!
When it comes to eating out at restaurants, we prefer to eat at the ones we know always has a loud crowd and are family friendly. Oh, and having a booth rather than a table, is the best way to keep the kiddos from escaping. If the restaurant is loud, it will make no difference if Michael is stimming verbally at the top of his lungs! No one will hear it; therefore, he isn’t the one disturbing anyone’s lunch or dinner. It’s a win-win situation for everyone. Now if we happen to be in an area we are unfamiliar with or traveling, we know that there will be challenges but we do our best to get through them. As I may have mentioned, we have had incidences where Michael is very loud and people turn around and stare, whisper or smirk. My husband is notorious for making the same loud sounds Michael is making at the same time. His theory is to let them think we are all nuts and see where Michael gets it from. Sometimes, it’s hilarious and I am waiting for the manager to throw us out, but for the most part, people just turn back around. Quickly. Not every restaurant will be suitable for us as a family, but we do make sure we bring Michael’s tablet and iPad (fully charged) with us. It can sometimes be what makes or breaks us when eating out.
For the most part, Michael loves being outside, anywhere. A trip to Target, food shopping, a ride around the block, and he is a happy camper! He is also very sociable with people, and from my understanding, not all autistic children are. He has no issues with saying hello to people, giving them a high five, a hug and a kiss. Unusual but I’m happy he can do these things; it certainly makes him more approachable. It makes it easier to communicate with people when they ask about Michael. It also gives us more control on how to respond, bringing autism awareness out in the open.
As time goes by and I meet more families of special needs children, I relate more to the issues they are going through and I also learn from them. I hope that in return, I’m giving back to my autism family community in some way by letting them know it’s okay to go out with your child. Use these opportunities to work on social issues and communicate to people around you that our children are worthy of their attention, just not the negative kind.
I’d love to hear about your experiences, whether personal or by observing, in the comments below.