It was 10:15 on a Wednesday morning, and I was standing outside a coffee shop, holding back tears.
10 minutes earlier, I'd walked into the coffee shop with my 8-year-old son. We were greeted by the anxious looks of a half-dozen people quietly working on their laptops, wondering if my son was going to disturb their peace. They were right to worry.
I had pulled my son out of school three months before; it would be another year before we got his autism diagnosis, but it was already clear that his combination of anxiety, sensitivity, and giftedness made public school a poor fit. That day, we were on our way to the gym class that was part of our new homeschooling schedule. A pre-class snack was part of the routine.
But that day, the routine was off. My son didn’t want to leave the house; then he didn’t want to get out of the car. I parked directly in front of the coffee shop, hoping to lure him out with a snack – but as soon as he got to the counter, he fixated on a brownie in the display case.
"I want a brownie, please," he told the barista.
I overruled him: "You can get a healthy snack."
"I want a brownie!" This time, his request came out as a shouted demand.
All eyes were on us, glaring over the tops of their computers.
"You can have a muffin and some milk or nothing," I told him.
"I WANT A BROWNIE!!!"
Did I hear a whispered "tsk" from one of the café’s patrons, or was I imagining things? No time to check.
"We’re going," I said firmly, taking my son by the hand. As I pulled him away from the counter, he grabbed onto the legs of a table occupied by a couple of women. I pried his fingers off, one a time, and dragged him across the floor as he screamed.
By the time I got him to the sidewalk, with the café door shut behind me, he was in tears. I held mine back, pushing aside the mortification of yet another public meltdown so that I could focus on calming my son.
It’s a scene I’ve lived through over and over again, as parents of special needs kids often do.
I’ve experienced the glares, the muttering, the unasked-for advice: They’re all part of raising a child with an invisible disability.
Most of the time, I don’t think of my son’s autism as a disability; it’s inseparable from what makes him an extraordinary, delightful, and fascinating little person. But when all eyes are on us during a public tantrum, I feel like he’s just as excluded as a wheelchair user confronting a flight of stairs.
Standing outside the coffee shop, holding back my tears, here’s what I wish those coffee shop denizens had known.
1. Yes, I’d like your help.
If you’re scared that I’ll be offended, don’t be — and I won’t ask you to take over the tantrum management. But I would have welcomed someone getting up from their laptop to open the door while I dragged my son out, and I dream about someone offering to pack up our books on the not-infrequent occasions when I have to pack up with one hand and hold a raging child with the other.
I would have welcomed someone getting up from their laptop to open the door while I dragged my son out.
2. But not your advice.
One of the reasons I drag my son away from public meltdowns is because all too often, my fellow parents have taken those meltdowns as an invitation to offer their own parenting advice. It’s like a knife in my heart when someone "kindly" tells me I just need to set firmer limits — after I’ve spent hours and hours reading up on child psychology, working with child therapists, and setting up visual schedules and reward charts.
3. Talking to my son will make things worse.
Another reason for my quick escape? Getting my son out of the path of would-be saviors. When he’s melting down in public, I say an inner prayer: "Please, please, don’t let any of these people talk to my kid right now." When he’s having a tantrum, input from anyone — especially strangers — just increases his anxiety and distress.
4. Please don't judge me.
What goes on inside your head is up to you. But the staring, the head shaking, the under-the-breath muttering: I see it all. Most days, I see it on Facebook — all those "what today’s parents get wrong" — before we even leave the house. I already feel all the pain and compassion and fear that comes with raising a child who has acute challenges filtering out the noise of the world and managing his own emotions; I am trying to let go of the shame that can go with it. When I see and hear people judging me for my parenting "failures," it makes that a lot harder.
The staring, the head shaking, the under-the-breath muttering: I see it all.
5. A smile would mean the world.
I understand that you may not be able to offer help or may feel uncomfortable getting embroiled in our drama. But a sympathetic smile goes a long way. Nothing feels more lonely than the moment when my son melts down in public; a smile that says, "Gosh, that looks really challenging, and I see you’re doing the best you can" is a lifeline.
The day of Browniegate, I finally got something even better than a smile.
Once we made it to the sidewalk, I managed to calm my son down enough to get him to a nearby park: Sometimes exercise can help him get out of an emotional tailspin. When we got to the park, however, he was overwhelmed by the crowd of kids, and he wanted to flee; he suggested that he could get his exercise by walking back to the coffee shop instead so that he could get half a brownie.
When we got back to the coffee shop, I told him to wait outside because it was too embarrassing to be seen buying a brownie after our earlier drama. But my son wanted to go in and apologize. He asked for his brownie and politely told the barista, "I’m sorry for my behavior earlier."
"That was very nice," I said, to reinforce his turnaround. "You did a good job."
The barista looked at me and said quietly, "You did a good job, too."
That was when I cried.