Special-needs melt down? Show compassion, not judgment


“A little support goes a long way.”

— Amy Kenzer, vice president and clinical-services director
at Southwest Autism Research and Resource Center in Phoenix.

Picture yourself on an airplane, seated next to a screaming toddler. We’re talking a full-throttle kicking, screaming terror. He’s banged your seat, interrupted your sleep and ruined your favorite shirt with his sports drink. But here’s the catch: He’s your toddler.

OK, it’s over. Whew! Just a bad dream.

Only it isn’t a dream, because every parent I’ve ever met has been in that situation. Maybe it wasn’t an airplane. Maybe it was at the zoo or at Aunt Donna’s wedding. Whatever the setting, I can guarantee one thing: The worst part wasn’t your child’s behavior, it was the judgment you felt when it happened.

For parents of children with special needs, being judged is something they contend with nearly every day.

Amy Kenzer is vice president and clinical-services director at Southwest Autism Research & Resource Center, which works tirelessly to provide services and information to clients who have family members on the autism spectrum.

Kenzer wants everyone to understand something: “It’s hard enough being a parent. Add to that a disability or a child with special needs, and the work can be absolutely daunting.”

She reminds us that families of children with special needs have a lot on their plates. School conferences, dietary considerations, medicine dosages, therapy appointments, assessment schedules and doctor visits are a lot to juggle. But the judgment and criticism can be the hardest to reconcile.

Kenzer says parents have told her, “We never go out and eat at a restaurant” or “I can’t take them to the grocery store. It’s way too stressful.”

But it’s important for families to go out in the world, and this means it’s important for us — collectively, as a society — to support them.

Here’s what you need to know:

  • Not all special needs are obvious. Many children have diagnoses that are not outwardly apparent, and physical disabilities don’t always indicate delayed intellectual development. Resist making snap judgments about a child’s behavior or a parent’s response.
  • Overstimulation can be a trigger. Some children are highly sensitive to noises, sensations and movement. Public areas can be particularly difficult for them to manage.
  • A meltdown is not the same as a tantrum. Unlike a tantrum, a meltdown is not a cry for attention. Instead, it’s a loss of control where children no longer are aware of their actions or what’s occurring around them.
  • Anxiety is real. Anxiety creates real physiological responses in a child, such as increased heart rate, heightened awareness and inability to focus. Until fears are managed, a child’s behavior can’t be addressed.
  • Lack of fear can be a problem, too. Some children are delayed in understanding dangers and are prone to wandering or are drawn to unsafe situations. This doesn’t indicate a lack of character but rather a skill set the child has yet to develop.
  • What looks like poor parenting may be a carefully charted behavioral plan. Parents whose children have special needs often are instructed to follow specific procedures when dealing with behavior. This takes a lot of patience and training. Parents need to be supported, not sabotaged, in these efforts.
  • Social interactions, though not always easy, are worth it. It’s easy to shy away from people who seem to act differently or approach the world in ways different from ours. But these can become the most valuable friendships. In fact, we often can learn the most from those least like us.

How to help

If you want to offer support to a parent who’s struggling with a meltdown, be sensitive in your approach. Joyce Millard Hoie, executive director at the Phoenix nonprofit Raising Special Kids and mother to a child with special needs, offers the following:

  • Don’t stare.
  • Show compassion.
  • Provide positive feedback.
  • Offer assistance.

Kenzer says to be mindful of the fact that you don’t know the backstory in these situations.

“That family at the table in the restaurant getting dirty looks may actually be experiencing a great milestone success story,” she says. “This may be the first time the child has eaten a food they never tried, or it may be the first time they stayed for an entire meal.”

It’s important to remind yourself that you don’t have enough information to make a judgment call and therefore should avoid unsolicited comments or advice. Parents have told Kenzer that when their children have had meltdowns, strangers have said such things as: “That wouldn’t happen if you’d spank them once in awhile.”

“This does not help either the child or the parent,” she says. “You would do much better by that child by providing compassion. A little support goes a long way.”

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