As the weather gets warmer, more park visits and outdoor activities are expected. But for parents of neuro-divergent children, this outdoor migration brings a whole new slew of challenges. What is important to know about neuro-divergent children is that they are diverse, hence the name. While most parents struggle with parenting in public (think meltdowns in the middle of the grocery store), parents of children with ASD have the additional challenge that while their child may often look to the outside observer as neuro-typical, they, in fact, are not. These children look and act “regular,” until they simply cannot do so.
According to Disabled World, about 10% of the population has some invisible or hidden disability. The more social aspects of spring mean that more people are seeing, reacting to, and, unfortunately, judging your child. For parents of children with hidden ASD, this can cause them to over-discipline their children in public. However, for these children, their behavior is not an issue of discipline, but rather how they cope and deal with the world due to their neurological realities.
For an ASD child, an outing can provide many challenges. They may have sensory processing disorders, anxiety, and sensitivity to bright lights or loud noises, all of which will affect the child’s behavior. In addition, children with ASD are more prone to tantrums and generally have longer-lasting meltdowns than their neuro-typical peers. In addition, neuro-divergent individuals can be less mature than neuro-typical children. Therefore, behavior that may be inappropriate for a neuro-typical child at a certain age can be entirely acceptable for the same-age child with ASD.
The lack of awareness of these hidden disabilities has become increasingly more evident with the recent issues many parents of ASD children have experienced while flying due to public transportation mask mandates. While children with ASD were often excused from wearing masks without a visible disability, many parents were reprimanded for not having their child wear a mask, which can be highly challenging for a child with ASD.
So what should a parent of a child with a hidden diagnosis do when those angry glares and condemning whispers (or outright unsolicited and rude advice) are directed their way?
#1- Be upfront about your child’s diagnosis
Unfortunately, the stigma still associated with an ASD diagnosis causes many parents not to inform others of their child’s diagnosis. However, keeping a child’s diagnosis secret does a disservice to both you and your child. When you are comfortable with your child’s reality, you can give them the tools to truly thrive and grow. Informing friends and family (and sometimes judgmental strangers) of your child’s diagnosis can allow them to handle the situation with your child correctly.
When confronted with someone who feels your child is misbehaving for the setting, their age, or around their peers, calmly explain that your child has ASD. Explain how your child may look like their child on the outside. However, their diagnosis does not allow them to interact with the world in the same way.
#2 – Realize that their reaction is out of ignorance, not malice
Most people are not mean; they are simply uneducated about ASD and all the various forms it can take. Realizing this allows you to handle the situation without embarrassment or anger. Your child has ASD, and this is not something to be embarrassed about. ASD and the behaviors associated with it are not in any way a reflection of your parenting skills. Meltdowns or other behavioral issues can be unpredictable and out of your control, but educating the unknowing bystander(s) about your child’s condition is. Which brings us to our next point…
#3 – Use the opportunity to educate
In explaining your child’s diagnosis, you have hopefully created one less uneducated and intolerant person in this world. They, in turn, may find themselves witnessing another child’s meltdown or tantrum and can react emphatically, offer to help the parent involved, and even educate others on the proper way to respond to a child who might have a hidden diagnosis.
With the knowledge gleaned from raising your child with ASD, you are these individuals’ best resource to learn more about ASD. Therefore, do not take offense at their questions (no matter how insensitive they may seem), but instead view these questions as an opportunity to teach them how to react and interact with ASD individuals.
If you’re overly ambitious, you can create business cards with some links to resources that these confused bystanders can visit to find out more information about ASD.
#4 Take baby steps
The best way to avoid these meltdowns in the first place is to work on desensitizing your child to any sensory overload or other triggers that may cause them. Start off by showing them pictures of the playground or park you’re going to. Follow that by showing them the park by driving by it so that they can experience it with the safety of the car window, separating them from any overwhelming experience.
Once you feel your child is ready to go, plan ahead. Let them know that they are going on to the park at this specific time and specify after which part of their routine they will be going, so they know precisely when you will be going.
Try to go at times when the park isn’t too packed, and start off staying in the park for short periods of time, gradually adding more time to the length you stay. You can also bring along your child’s favorite comfort object or toy while he is at the park.
Recognize your child’s sensory areas and avoid those areas on the playground.
#5 – Remember you’re doing the best you can
Inevitably, your child will have a meltdown. Which child doesn’t? And inevitably, there will be someone who will be judgmental or respond negatively. Isn’t there always? Never let someone else’s perception of you or your child affect how you perceive yourself or your child. Focus on your child’s progress rather than their setbacks, and acknowledge that you are doing the best you can for your special child and the rest of your family. Be proud of your wonderful child and the amazing job you are doing raising them, and you will persevere even in the face of unwarranted criticism.
So get out there, enjoy the beautiful spring weather and never let having an child with ASD stop you from interacting with the world at large.