Saturday, 14 July 2012
Mary Poppins is Practically Perfect in every way. I am not, but I do know how to get my own kid to stop crying.
April was Autism Awareness Month, and ironically, one of the busiest times of year at Walt Disney World. On top of spring breaks around the world happening this month, it is time for the Epcot International Flower and Garden Festival. I hope to see some the wonderful topiaries soon, but until then, I will refer to is the way I see most of spring-time for sneezes and bees-es. Spring break, while wonderful, has a crowd, and it is loud.
Autism is a disability that may be less visible to the naked eye than others, like cerebral palsy, or being without a limb. A poorly kept secret about those white canes blind people may use is that it is just was much to identify them to you, if you are sighted, and especially if you are driving a car, as it is to assist them. Bad actors playing blind folks use the white cane as a crutch. In real life, the cane user uses skills, like a sweeping technique or a two-point touch to navigate his or her surroundings. They are trained by an orientation and mobility specialist.
People with autism, and their families, may wear ribbons with puzzles pieces, keep some images on a binder ring to facilitate communication, or keep eye plugs on hand to block out distracting noises. People with autism may seem insensitive, because they don’t pick up on subtle social cues, but generally, they are more sensitive to stimuli, like a buzzing bee, the smell of bread in an oven, or the feel of a tag in the back of their shirt. The specialists who first teach them how to navigate their world are called “parents.”
To further mystify the rest of the world, you neuro-typicals, some people with autism are hypo-sensitive to touch. Meaning, they would need a firm hug to feel hugged, or that they squeeze things too hard to feel like they are squeezing it at all. In school settings, this translates into a child “lightly” bumping into another child in line, and the other child wondering why they got tackled. Since the child with autism hardly felt the bump, there is a lot of confusion over why his classmate is so upset over a small thing. The other kid is annoyed they can’t walk in peace. You may find the child with autism is given the job of being the “door holder” or “caboose’ in a line, to avoid such exchanges. When my kid comes home and says they were the “teacher’s helper”, my YEARS of special education training tell me, the phone will ring after dinner. There is a NEAR THE ADULT to TRUST THE KID ratio, that is inversely proportioned.
Children may like spinning or crashing, because they are looking for feedback. Have you ever had goosebumps? Did you hate it and rub your skin to make them go away? Would you like to have that feeling, without notice, some of the time and then get yelled at for distracting your coworkers by trying to fix it? Waiting in line for a child with a certain neurological makeup is as hard as eating a hamburger while standing on a balance beam. This is why families can request a guest assistance card, which helps to level the playing field. If you have a “bumper” or a “jumper”, and others in line give you a look, remember that it is for their comfort, as well. Some families are more inclined to wear a shirt promoting a medical non-profit of choice, so other guests will connect the dots and figure out why you are in a shorter line. If you did not judge them when you had to leave a loud birthday party after 20 minutes last year, I suggest you don a Disney shirt as loud as theirs, and just keep swimming.
The most important thing I ever learned about autism is that when a typical child looks at a face, their brain “lights up” in the area that registers emotions. Happy faces trigger happy thoughts. In children with autism, a face is an object, like a spoon. Now, every brain is different, but some children need to be taught that the scowling eyebrows=angry face=angry person=consequence is coming. The brain needs to see the object (the face), think about where it fits, put it in a category, and then deal with the situation. There is no fast pass from “smile” to “happy” for these kids. It is a multistep process. When I am redirecting my children, or any children in my care, I point to my face as I’m talking and describe it. “See this face? This is not a happy face. I need you to…”. Incidentally, when I am working with a blind child, I also describe faces of others in the room, so they don’t think I have superpowers by guessing how they feel. I am looking, and interpreting that data. Is it any wonder then, that a child with autism would really appreciate a character who expresses himself without words, uses his movements to communicate, and has a facial expression which does not change for the whole meal? When can we move here!
So when a child is stressed because they are hot, wearing new Crocs, and in search of Pluto who, according to the schedule from guest services was going to be HERE at 3:15 p.m., would yelling at them, in an emotional way, get you the end result you desire? No. In fact, it would either trigger a fight or flight response in the brain, or, more maddening, the child may analyze your voice, and tell you how you sound, without giving you any facial expression, except a hint of surprise. Now who is having the meltdown?
You may see a variety of parenting styles in a large place where children gather. At the circus, recently, I heard the man behind us smack his child on the bottom. I don’t do that, because I don’t think it would work with my kids, and the short term gain would be lost in the end of the series, but the act scared my son. I know because about five minutes later he wanted to leave, due to the noise of the act in the center ring. Thirty minutes later, he asked me why the “baby was crying” and then, for a three-year old, gave me a dissertation on how the daddy hit the baby. I asked him what happened next. His answer will go in a baby book-”The baby cried louder.” I told him I noticed that too, and that hitting is against the rules in our family, even for mommies and daddies. Finally, a smile. I knew it wasn’t really about that human cannonball.
I can’t tell a frustrated parent how to discipline his child, especially in the place where I live. Laws on spanking, hitting, swatting, or paddling vary from state to state. I was told by our doctor that for some children, one raised eyebrow can bring on as much stress as a full on screaming match. I have one of those kids. Incidentally, eye brows, and screaming, are legal in every state, no matter how dangerous they can be.
If your child is melting down, a few things you can do to help them are:
- Change the scenery. Whatever happened in line for Space Mountain or at Ariel’s Grotto will be over sooner if there are not so many visual reminders of how bad it was, whatever it was.
- Get down on the child’s level, and offer comfort. Don’t make the child look you in the eye or articulate. Don’t even make them tell an honest version. They are processing their thoughts and you can go back and spackle the holes in the story later.
- Repeat back what the child said, in their words. If they say, “Goofy is scary,” saying “Goofy is not scary,” means you don’t get it, and they better find another way to let you know they are scared. Did you bring shin guards? Did Goofy? Try “You think Goofy is scary” or “Goofy scared you, huh?” No denial. You are letting them know you get it. They can stop convincing you with tears and screaming.
- Remind the child of familiar things, in a soft voice. They don’t have to be immediate rewards. No time-shares on a pony. Something simple like, “Well, I thought we’d do 2 more rides that your brother likes, and then go to the pool. Do you like the pool? Do you want to wear your red swimsuit like at home?” Notice, you are not rewarding the meltdown, you are offering a reminder that better things are on the horizon. Kind of like getting in the car after a meeting and listening to a podcast of Disney music, reminding you of a trip in 145 days.
- If people around you stare, or want to pitch in, you are in a bind between the greater community, who may say the very thing to move your progress backwards, and your child who now has a stranger in their face. I suggest sending them for stickers, ice, or snipes. I have often handed a parent a sticker during their kid’s meltdown, or a plastic toy, and run. I say to the parent, “Dad, would this help,” and gracefully disappear, Cheshire Cat-style. The child doesn’t need an internal debate about strangers and dangers. The parent needs to know they are not alone, or they need to be left alone.
If someone asks what is wrong, when your hands are full, a simple, “Tough time” or “She is sad,”is explanation enough. You don’t need to review the doctor’s report with them. Your child doesn’t need to hear that you put the disability above the feelings they are having in the moment. Has anyone ever belittled your opinion or feelings due to your age, education, or a physical condition, like pregnancy? Did you want to bite them, a little bit?
If you see a child losing control and a parent losing it with them, you may grab a cast member and report it as a concern. Even if the child does not have autism, there could be more going on than meets the eye. In young children, if early warning signs are present, but a child doesn’t meet the criteria for an Autism Spectrum Disorder, they may just be considered “developmentally delayed,” and parent may not even have considered using some of the tools and tricks veteran parents of children with this diagnosis have in their fanny packs. During a peaceful moment, tell them about sites like this, where the strategies and resources matter at least as much as the label.
In a proud parenting moment, I once told Mary Poppins to back off, using my pointer finger, because the sea of large white dress and mass of red lipstick looked like a tsunami coming to over-stimulate the child I had just calmed down after a rough, last day, transition. We locked eyes, and she turned on her character heel and went. We made up on the next trip, but during a weaker parenting moment, on the plane I lamented over how the most famous nanny in the world was no match for my kid’s meltdown.
Luckily, I was.