Every Saturday my husband and our son celebrate its arrival when they wake up with a little ritual. With a big smile on his face, my husband will get down with our son and gleefully shout, "What day is it Malachi?" Malachi will shout, "Saturday!" Then together they will both shout and say, "No work...no school...just play!" It always makes me smile to hear this joyful exchange between them. This morning they left the house early for Malachi's swimming lesson, and to go get haircuts afterwards. A couple of hours to myself on Saturday morning is always a welcome treat!
This morning brought an extra treat with a phone call from Alan and Malachi asking me to join them for a late breakfast at a nearby restaurant...to which I simply could not refuse! During every outing we have in public, there is always a constant low level of tension present that I can never seem to shake. I'm always on guard, always watching Malachi - and everyone around us, and constantly on the lookout for red flags, or the signs that it's time to leave. This morning when I walked into the restaurant, I relaxed somewhat when I saw that Alan and Malachi were in a corner booth, sitting side by side and all was calm.
Malachi looked so cute with his new haircut. As soon as I sat down he asked me if I liked it. (Of course, I think he's the most handsome kid in the world no matter what)! It surprised me that he was seeking my approval - something he doesn't usually seek from anyone - so it was with great pleasure I got to tell him how handsome he looked!
Malachi finished his Belgium Waffle and wanted another one...but it was getting time to go. We had waited quite awhile for the one he had just eaten. I'm seeing the signs that the morning's events are beginning to take their toll on his senses. The restaurant is starting to fill up quickly now with people coming in for lunch, and I knew it was time for us to go. He wasn't satisfied with our answer that he could have more to eat when we got home. Without warning, he promptly stood up on the seat calling out very loudly for everyone to hear, "Does anyone have a waffle I can have?" My face turned beet red...the restaurant was filled with the sounds of laughter everywhere. I told Malachi to sit down, I was so embarrassed! I think someone wanted to have some more fun and laughter at my expense and called out, "Hey, why don't you ask that again?" Malachi quite willingly obliged and stood up again to repeat the question! More laughter...someone offered him their pancakes. Malachi informed them he didn't like pancakes, at which point I interrupted the conversation and told him to sit down. People were still giggling. Sigh.
My husband is smiling, Malachi is actually smiling, people around us are laughing and smiling...is this really okay? I'm usually busy trying to keep everything running on an even keel, or fending off disasters, or appeasing and apologizing to angry people. This is a new experience. A crowd of happy people, who seem to be quite nice, just having some harmless fun...or is it? Last Friday we were dealing with a crowd of folks who were angry and yelling at us, this week we're dealing with folks who are teasing and having some fun - at my son's expense of course, but maybe I shouldn't look at it like that. I sat there analyzing, worrying, and wondering if this was okay. I looked around and could tell that no one was being malicious. Even the person who had put Malachi up to his repeat performance actually seemed like a nice guy, smiling and friendly. Since no one was being mean spirited or ugly, I finally relaxed and decided that this was much better (and less stressful) than dealing with an angry crowd. In a few minutes everyone had returned back to their meals and their conversations. I guess it's time to learn how to relax more when we go out...that's not likely to happen though...but I will take this kind of fun and laughter over screaming and yelling - any day!
It was all going so well. It’s Friday night, the last Friday night of March. Malachi is begging me to take him to meet a couple of his friends at a local bounce house. I want so much for him to have friends, to be happy and live life as close to “normal” as possible - I'm so anxious to see him have friends and have fun, that I give in. As we pull into the parking lot, I start going over the rules with him that we always go over before going to places like this. Part of me really just wants to take him home and not have to deal with the stress of taking him out in public. Public outings, most group settings, and play dates are usually a time I spend vigilantly watching his every move - to include those of everyone around him. I never know how he will interpret or react to something that is said to him. My biggest concern during our times out, is worrying about how others will react to him. I’m constantly pacing to and fro watching him…trying to stay near enough (without looking like I am following him around) so that I can listen in on any conversations he is having with others.
Malachi is ecstatic that we are going to one of his favorite places. After checking in, he takes off with glee to find his friends. Within moments of getting there the lights are dimmed. We buy glow sticks for the kids…they love it! It is so wonderful to sit with friends, watching him run from one inflatable to the other, bouncing around, laughing and enjoying himself with other kids his age – in a public place. These are rare times. He is our only child. He wants to be around other kids, but with the autism and sensory problems he has, it’s a challenge. He has not yet learned to self-regulate and manage his sensory challenges on his own. We usually have to cut outings short and go home. Usually, I can read the signs that let me know it’s time for us to go. It is getting close to the time I know we need to leave. This night I am lenient, giving in to his plea to let him stay for another five minutes.
Within a minute or two, I see trouble brewing between Malachi and a couple of other older and bigger boys there. A mother knows exactly what every facial movement on her child’s face is all about. Whatever the conversation is about, I can see it is highly agitating to Malachi. As I walk toward them, it’s becoming more and more obvious that something is about to break out between the three of them. I move a little more quickly to get there in time…thankfully, when the two older boys see me approaching, they walk away. I can tell that Malachi is really angry now. When I tell him it’s time to go, he becomes even angrier and runs away screaming, “No!!” It becomes an enormous struggle to get him to the door. I see a child running toward us. He is happily running toward an inflatable behind us. As he runs by, he accidentally bumps into Malachi nearly knocking him down – which in turn causes him to begin melting down in a major way. He begins to scream because he is convinced that the other child pushed him "on purpose." He breaks free and begins to run after the child. When I catch him and try to hold him, he begins biting and hitting me. He has never bitten me before, and has only ever hit me on one or two occasions. I am usually the one person he responds to positively - no matter how badly things are going. I know this is a sign that his senses are extremely overloaded right now, and that he is out of control...the wonderful evening is quickly coming to a horrible end.
The next few minutes turn into a blurry nightmare. I tell Malachi once again that it’s time to go. He darts away, but this time he heads toward the front door. I lose sight of him…it’s so difficult to see with the lights turned down low. I am panicking because I know he is in meltdown mode – in the midst of a crowd of strangers. Why are all these people milling around, blocking the way to the entrance? The birthday party crowd is scattered around the cubbies to the front desk...making it seem impossible for me to get to my son quickly enough. The combination of the loud music, the motors that are pumping air into the inflatables, along with the birthday party crowd and all the other kids who are running around everywhere laughing and yelling, make it impossible for me to call out loudly enough for Malachi to hear me. I am sure that fear and stress made it seem like everything was in slow motion, but in reality it all happened very quickly.
Finally, I see him near the front desk. As I catch up to him, the girl at the front desk comes around from behind it to make sure the numbers stamped on our wrists match. However, he is still in meltdown mode and is unable to respond to her appropriately. Her continued efforts to check the stamp on his arm are only frustrating him even more as she follows him out the door, repeatedly telling him that she needs to check his wrist. I am behind her as she is following him trying to reason with him, (welcome to my world). She finally gives up and turns around with a questioning look. I can only look at her apologetically and say the phrase that I seem to say so many times – a phrase I am growing to hate, “He has autism.” I tell her that it’s important for me to get him away from there as quickly as possible. She nods her head in an understanding way and lets us go.
Just as I am beginning to feel relief to have gotten him out of there, he abruptly stops and turns around. He points to his feet and begins screaming, “I left my Perry shoes in there…I have to go get them!” He adores his Perry the Platypus tennis shoes – his favorite character from the cartoon Phineas & Ferb. (If only Perry were here right now)! Before I can stop him or say a word to him, he darts back into the building. I run after him and can see that he is plowing his way through the crowd to get to his beloved Perry the Platypus shoes. As I head to the door, it appears that my friend is holding him…it looks like someone is yelling at him…I run inside…the place seems to be in an uproar…my heart begins pounding…why do so many people seem to be upset? I feel so helpless, I am ready to lose it myself now because I know it can only be because of my son. My heart sinks to the bottom of my stomach as I realize no one there has any way of knowing he has a poor sense of space, and that when he’s under stress and overloaded, it’s nearly impossible for him to gauge where his body is in a crowd. He literally cannot respond to anything anyone says to him when he reaches that state.
As I enter the building, stress is starting to shut down my own ability to process everything. I start to feel like I’m in a tunnel. I can hear people talking about someone’s child who has been knocked down, but their voices sound so far away. I begin to feel like I’m in another world when I see a man point at Malachi and then yell at the top of his lungs, his face contorting with disgust and fury saying, “Somebody get that kid out of here!” The expression on this man's face, along with the words he is using, and the tone he is saying them with make my blood turn cold. I can only think, “Does he not realize my son is only a child, and that he is having a terrible problem right now?” I have to get my son out of this crowd somehow…oh why are all these people still milling around the entry way?! I just could not seem to get to Malachi fast enough!!!
I finally reach him and help him get his shoes out of the cubby. He is in panic mode now. I can see fear on his face. He darts away from me again, and just as I am trying to run after him, a man blocks me. He identifies himself as a police officer with the Springfield Police Department…a mother’s worst nightmare…her child in trouble with the law! Stress, panic and fear for Malachi took over at that point…I cannot see him! This man who has just identified himself as being from the police department - he could have been the President of the United States of America for all I cared at that moment. My child is in danger and the mother inside of me is in high gear to get to him! This man is yelling at me, determined to fill me in about the details of what my son did to his daughter. Why can’t he understand that my son is having a serious problem and that I need to get to him? What is wrong with him? When I tell him that my son has autism and that I need to get to him…he does not seem the least bit concerned and only continues talking about his daughter…at which point I dismiss him. What kind of idiot would identify himself as a police officer, and then act like this after I tell him my son has a disability and that I need help? If he really is a police officer, why isn’t trying to help us? He can help his daughter - and everyone else there by doing some crowd control, by clearing the crowd so I can get to my son and get him out of there away from everyone!
I walk away from this "police officer" to find Malachi. I finally see him, and when he sees me, he clings to me while people are pointing and yelling at him…I can’t even hear what they are saying, it is all so crazy! (I am serious when I say it was like they were all pointing and saying, “Crucify him! Crucify him!”). Can these people not see that he is just a child? I cannot project my voice well at all. I am unable to make myself heard over the madness of the people who are yelling at us…I feel so utterly helpless and overwhelmed. I know I am on the verge of going into shock (been there before)…and just so that I can be heard, I scream back at them, “HE HAS AUTISM! HE HAS AUTISM! CAN’T YOU SEE HE HAS AUTISM?” Of course no one can “see” he has autism, why am I asking them that?
I am shaking so badly at this point, and as I turn to walk out I can feel my legs shaking like they might give out on me. For a split second, I don’t know if I am going to be able to walk out…but I quickly put that thought out of my head knowing my son needs me to hold it together. He begins asking questions. I see that he is in great distress too, talking very fast in a high pitched voice wanting to know why everyone was yelling at us. He wants to know why the “police man” was yelling at me. He starts generalizing and says, “Police are evil mommy! They are evil. That police man needs to go to jail, he’s evil!” He begins to rant while we walk to the car. As we pull out of the parking lot on to the main road, he continues to rant about police officers being mean and evil. He asks again why people were yelling at me, he asks again why everyone was so mad, he just doesn’t get it! He cannot connect his behavior to the uproar that is taking place inside the building we have just left. As gently as I can, I tell Malachi that when he ran back into the building to get his shoes, he had knocked down the “policeman’s” daughter. I tell him that the man was upset because he loves his daughter very much, and it hurts him to see his daughter get hurt. He says, “I didn’t mean to knock her down mommy. I didn’t even see her.” He abruptly changes the subject and begins saying that he no longer wants to be a policeman when he grows up. He begins rethinking that desire and says, “I don’t want to be a police officer anymore when I grow up. I think I will just be a monster truck driver instead.”
We have only been on the road for a few minutes at this point when we hear sirens in the distance somewhere behind us. Malachi begins to scream. He is terrified and convinced that the police are coming after us. For a minute, panic takes over. I see an entrance to a subdivision and have this crazy urge to take my son and hide with him somewhere. Hide? Really? Yes! I kid you not…it is in this moment I realize the lunacy of this whole situation. Reason takes over once again and I am able to collect my thoughts. (It helped that I saw the police car head in the opposite direction). I spend the next few minutes trying to calm Malachi and reassure him that the police are not coming after us.
Something inside of me snaps. Malachi can get so easily stuck on ideas about things that are sometimes very difficult for him to get “unstuck” from. I know that I have to do something to prevent him from getting stuck on this idea that police officers are evil and mean people who yell at his mom when he is having a problem. I want him to have respect and confidence in police officers. I do not want to give time a chance to get any of these awful thoughts about police officers stuck in his brain. I have no idea where the police station is. When he hears me calling information to get the number, Malachi launches into hysteria and screams, “No! Mommy! Please don’t take me to the police! Please don’t take me there!” He is crying and screaming at the same time. In a calm tone, I reassure him, “Malachi, you are not in trouble. Police officers are not mean and evil. Police officers are here to help us when we have problems. They are not going to arrest you because you are having a problem, and they are not supposed to yell at me while I am trying to help you. I am going to take you to the police station so that you can meet some nice police officers.”
I don’t know if half of anything I am saying to him registers, but he appears to calm down somewhat. As I drive up and down the street looking for the station, he is saying things like, “Life is hard mommy.” “I have a problem mommy.” “Why do I have these problems?” He still does not accept that he has autism. While trying to gently help him connect his behavior with the pandemonium we left behind us, I mention the “A” word. He will not let us say the word autism in his presence. When he hears someone say it, he promptly yells, “I hate that word autism!” He has overheard someone somewhere saying that he is a “special needs kid” and that he rides the “special needs bus.” He decides tonight that must be the reason he has problems. He is talking nonsensically now. I look at his face and see defeat…I know that I have another tough job ahead of me. I will need to find ways to help him feel confidence in himself again. I will not let him feel this way about himself…but at this moment it seems that nothing I say is registering – but we never know what our kids are registering, so I continue to tell him that he can overcome his problems, and that he can beat autism…he doesn’t protest this time about the “A” word.
We finally arrive at the police station. I share the events of the evening with the police and express concerns for my son with autism in a public setting. I ask them about public policy and procedure. They inform me that they are actually in the process of getting training in Crisis Intervention. They inform me that police officers are trained to properly identify themselves, and the man who identified himself had shown no badge, had given no name, and was in civilian clothes. He tells me the man doesn't sound like a police officer, and that they get reports of people claiming to be police officers all the time. I share with him that sometimes the emotions of being a parent can take over reason and logic! I (How well I knew). I tell him that the main reason we are there is so my son can meet a nice police officer and get out of his head the idea that policemen are “mean and evil.” I tell him I want my son to grow up to have confidence in and grow up with respect for police officers. The officer is so kind and patient with Malachi’s countless questions. They talk about police cars and criminals for awhile, and then Malachi emphatically tells the officer that the “other” police officer needs to be arrested and go to jail! The officer gives Malachi a tour of the police station. On our way out, the folks at the front desk give him crayons and a coloring book. I can tell that my son’s fear of police officers has been replaced with confidence, and that policemen are no longer “mean and evil” people in his mind. My husband has joined us at the station. In the aftermath of a meltdown, our son sometimes becomes extremely fatigued. He is unable to walk now and my husband has to carry him out.
I am handed a packet with a form to file my complaint with internal affairs. If this man is a police officer, I am told an investigation can be conducted. At the bottom of the complaint form there is a question, “How would you like to see this complaint resolved?” In spite of the tremendous pain his words and his actions caused both my son and me when we were already in the midst of a crisis, I feel very badly that my son knocked down his daughter. I have great empathy for the pain this man was obviously feeling for his daughter. I understand from my friend who was there, that the man’s wife tried to get him to leave my son alone. She told my friend that she works in a daycare where there are some children who have autism. I am so grateful that she thought enough of my son to tell her husband to leave my son alone, in spite of the pain she had to be feeling about her own daughter. When my friend told me she showed this concern for my son, it took some of the sting out of the horrible words I heard her husband say about him.
I failed my son by not recognizing sooner when it was it time for us to leave. By giving in to his pleas to stay longer I set him up for failure. The events of this evening are entirely my fault. He depends on me to structure his world, and though it started out great, we should have left on a high note when things were going well. I did not make a graceful exit with him. He is not to blame for anything. If there is any “resolution” I could ask for, it would be to ask that every law enforcement official on the force of Springfield’s finest be given training about children with developmental disabilities who are prone to meltdowns and other disturbances in public settings. For the protection of our children who are having meltdowns in a public setting, as well as for the safety of others who are in the vicinity of a child (or adult for that matter) having a meltdown, I think it’s of the utmost importance to put public policies and procedures into place. Strangers who see our children having a meltdown should not just automatically assume that what they are seeing is a product of poor parenting, or that they just need some good old fashioned “discipline.”
In closing, I would like to make a couple of suggestions for “resolution.” I don’t know if this is within the power of law enforcement officials, but perhaps it can be the start of dialogue within the community. When you see a parent struggling to control a child, don’t become part of the problem, either help or walk away. In fact getting out of the way - far, far away is probably the best thing you can do. If you are a parent, I will not be in the least offended if you grab your child and remove him from the vicinity of my son. I care about your children, please care about mine. Please give me room to work with my child so I can remove him from your presence as quickly as possible. Hurling insults and making derogatory remarks about my child and my parenting skills while I am struggling to help him will only hold up my progress in getting him out of the situation. There is so much more to say on this subject, but I have poured out my heart and have probably said enough already on this subject, maybe too much. There needs to be more dialogue on this subject. I will leave that to the professionals...and the police.
Once again, I want to thank the very kind officer who took time to make a difference in my son’s life.