A few weeks after Christmas, I was given the glorious opportunity of “child-free shopping” to spend some money Santa left for me. As I eagerly entered a department store to start some serious shopping, the anguished cries of a young child caught my attention. For some reason, I felt compelled to find the source of the cries.
I went over to the girls’ clothing section to find a young woman crouched over her daughter, who rolled back and forth on the floor with her eyes screwed shut and her hands clamped over her ears. The young woman whispered, “Chandra, it’s okay. We can go. You just need to calm down a bit so Mommy can help you up.”
The mother’s eyes welled with tears as she tried to bring out of her tantrum. People walked by them: some smiling, some laughing with empathy, others simply clicking their tongues in annoyance as if Chandra’s screams interrupted their search for the ultimate after-Christmas sale. Not one person stopped to ask if things were okay or if the mother needed help; they only judged.
What that young woman went through was a familiar scene for me. With my daughter Jaimie’s Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD), shopping was always a challenge. We never knew when we entered stores with Jaimie what lurked in the shadows to set off her SPD: a flickering light, a new smell, announcements made over the intercom…anything and everything was potential trigger for a fit. We rarely got our shopping finished because Jaimie broke down into an inconsolable fit we couldn’t calm her down from forcing us to leave. And it could be quite a show for passers-by.
I remember how my face flushed as people smiled, laughed or gave that head tilt that said, “Oh you poor thing.” I even had one lady say all Jaimie needed was a “good spanking.” I was never embarrassed by Jaimie’s behavior. And I never cared what people thought because, honestly, how could they know? How could an outside person truly understand what was happening unless they took the time to ask or, at the very least, listen as I spoke to Jaimie?
I never yelled at Jaimie or threatened for her to be quiet. I never said the infamous phrase, “Just you wait until I get you home, young lady!” I tried, just like Chandra’s mother, to calm Jaimie enough—to bring her focus back—so I could help her leave the “scary” place to find a “safer” place. Watchers of Jaimie’s fits didn’t know it may have been their voices that set her off; or, maybe, the house smells on their clothes that she couldn’t deal with; or that one flickering light off in the corner—undetectable to the untrained eye—that Jaimie wasn’t able to ignore.
With this experience under my belt, I approached the young woman—from a safe distance—and offered my help.
“No.” She said sternly. “No offense but your ‘help’ will only make things worse. Chandra can’t deal with strangers. She barely tolerates me some days. She has Autism.”
“My daughter has Sensory Processing Disorder,” I said. “I’ve had to deal with my fair share of sensory-related fits during a shopping trip.”
We talked for several minutes. I recalled how helpful it was for me having someone to talk to—a friendly voice—that calmed me down while I waited for Jaimie. It meant so much when someone cared enough to ask. I wanted to give that back to Chandra’s mother. It seemed to help a bit.
Chandra finally calmed down enough to be helped up so they could leave. Before they walked out the door, her mother touched my arm and said, “You know, it’s rare to have someone approach us the way you did and offer their help instead of treating us like we’re some free admission freak show. We appreciate it. Good luck with Jaimie.”
As I watched them walk out the automatic doors, two women—who’d watched from another section of the store—walked past me. One said to the other, “Man, if that had been my kid, I’d have taken her outside and tanned her hide until she stopped.”
I smiled. They weren’t trying to be cruel, I was sure. They were simply ignorant to what it’s like to have a special needs child. It wasn’t too long ago where I’d have thought the same things when I came across someone who struggled with their child in a store. Until I had Jaimie, I had no clue either.
There are many disorders, like Jaimie’s or Chandra’s, that aren’t obvious from the outside. You can’t see what they struggle with on their faces or see something different with their bodies. Their disorders are buried deep within them only giving a hint of its presence through the child’s overt behaviour.
It’s easy to judge a child as “naughty” or “spoiled” because they’re having a fit in a public place but it’s not always the case. Jaimie is still a normal five-year old in some respects and will still try to exert her independence or be sneaky. But about 95% of her fits are the result of her sensory issues and her anxiety, not because we’ve said, “No” to her.
Parents of special needs children don’t want sympathy; they want understanding for their children. So the next time you see a parent struggling with their child, try to look at the situation from a more omniscient view. You don’t have to go up and talk to them they way I did. Simply try to look at things from a different angle and see what’s beneath the surface. That’s where understanding stems from and that’s all we want for our children.
Knowledge breeds understanding and that’s so powerful.