Autism Is No Excuse

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A few weeks ago, there was a story in our local community newspaper about a boy with autism who had been asked to leave a restaurant, along with his mother. When I first read the headline – Autistic boy booted from restaurant – I felt outrage on behalf of the mother and child. But when I read the story, I found my sympathies shifting to the restaurant manager.

What happened was that a mother and her son with autism were eating at a fast food restaurant, and the child started melting down over something. He was shrieking and banging on the table, and at one point he grabbed a fistful of fries and threw them. The mother made little effort to soothe the child, saying, “He has autism. There’s nothing I can do.” When the manager politely asked her to leave, she complied, but in the aftermath she made a big deal of the fact that her son had been discriminated against because of his autism. The manager made a big deal of the fact that the child had been acting in a manner that was disruptive to other diners.

Anyone who’s been reading this blog for any length of time will know that I’ve dealt with my share of autism meltdowns. I’ve been that mother whose child kicks and screams in public places. I’ve been on the receiving end of the stares and comments, and on two occasions, I have had to offer to pay grocery stores for goods that have been damaged as a result of my son’s outbursts.

But my son’s autism does not entitle him to create a situation that disrupts the activities or enjoyment of other people. When he acts out in public, it’s for one of two reasons: either he is having an autism meltdown, or he’s acting like typical bratty kid. If he’s having an autism meltdown, it’s up to me to try and soothe him, either by removing him from the situation or by finding a way to divert his attention to something else. If he’s acting like a typical bratty kid, it’s up to me to discipline him and make it clear to him that bad behaviour is not acceptable.

Either way, it’s never OK for me to use my child’s disability as an excuse to let him behave in a way that impacts other people. He may have autism, but he still has to be held to a certain standard of behaviour, just like the rest of us. That restaurant manager was not reacting to the fact that the boy had autism. He was reacting to the child’s disruptive actions and the mother’s failure to do anything.

There was a story in the news a few years back about a child with autism who was removed from a plane under similar circumstances. He was lying in the aisle having a meltdown while the flight attendants and other passengers were trying to step over and around him. All attempts to get him settled in his seat were failing, and eventually the boy and his father were taken off the plane. My Facebook feed erupted in outrage as people accused the airline of discriminating against the boy with autism.

But really, what was the airline supposed to do? Delay the flight until the meltdown was over, which could have taken hours? Take off with a boy kicking and screaming in the aisle? Allow the behaviour to continue without regard for the safety of the flight attendants or passengers? My view was very unpopular, but I believe that the airline took the only action they really could. They would have done what they did whether the child had autism or not. In fact, from what I could glean from the story, the airline actually delayed their decision to remove the child because they had been made aware of his autism.

This subject reminds me of a conversation I had many years ago, when I was still in South Africa. I was talking to a co-worker about a high-profile murder case in which the accused had been convicted and sentenced to life in prison. Evidence against this individual had been overwhelming, in terms of forensics and witness accounts. My co-worker, a black man, told me that this man had been sent to prison just because he was black. I disagreed.

“No,” I said. “He’s been sent to prison because he killed four people.”

My co-worker did not dispute the fact that the man was guilty, but he was stuck on this idea that the outcome of the trial was symptomatic of racial discrimination. But what was the alternative? Should the judge have let the criminal walk free just to prove that he – the judge – wasn’t a racist?

Should flight attendants, restaurant managers and other people endure a child screaming and throwing things in public just to prove that they don’t discriminate against people with autism?

Discrimination in any way, shape or form is wrong. I do not condone racism, gender discrimination, homophobia or any kind of bias against people with disabilities. I am big on human rights and equality. I believe that accommodations should be made for members of minorities and people with disabilities where possible – like wheelchair accessible buildings, government services in multiple languages and alternative screening processes for job applicants with autism. But I also believe that everyone has a responsibility to be considerate to those around them.

This is an original post by Kirsten Doyle. Photo credit: Dmitry Kalinin. This picture has a creative commons attribution license.

  1. I totally agree with everything you said, Kirsten, and completely believe the same things you do. Well done for speaking up even when you know your position might be unpopular.

  2. Totally agree. So many parents seem to use their kids diagnosis as cart blanche for the kid to act out. Their is no excuse for bad behaviour and just because a child is autistic the same rules and standards of behaviour still apply! It is not an excuse to slack off, parents of autistic kids have to work harder to discipline and teach their kids what is acceptable but they owe it to their kids to put in the hard work otherwise they will grow into adults who have no coping mechanisms and can’t function in the real world.

    • I wouldn’t necessarily agree that the same standards of behaviour apply. My son with autism is not capable of behaving in the same way as other people of his age, and it wouldn’t be reasonable of me to expect that. Also, autism is not treated by stronger discipline. However, as an autism parent, I have to be able to distinguish behaviours that are autism-related from behaviours that are just the kid being a bratty kid. And I have to respond appropriately. If my son is just being defiant, I discipline him in a way that is appropriate for him. If his behaviour is because of his autism, I cannot discipline that, because the autism is not something within his control. However, I do what I can do minimise the effects of the behaviour on other people.

  3. I am so glad to see this. I have seen too many cases where a parent wants so much for them that they are willing/wanting to inflict them on others. Please keep in mind that while it is good for your child to experience things you may be ruining their experience for an entire classroom full of kids because you want to put your child’s learning over 20+ others.

  4. How refreshing to hear someone agree that autistic or not they still live in society and still have to be made to act in a considerate way around others. My neighbours 9 year old non verbal autistic kid screams every single night on the top of his lungs (just to get lollies) and the mother expects all of us around to just cop it because he is autistic. So he is allowed to keep my daughter awake way past midnight nearly every night screaming on the top of his lungs and banging things all he likes! His mother just ignores it or sucks up to him when he does it. It would be one thing if she said sorry I just can’t stop him I don’t know what to do, but for her to get mad at us and say well he has autism and that’s what they do.

    • That is extremely unfortunate, and that’s child’s mother is not doing any favours to her son or to the autism community in general. My son used to have terrible, ear-splitting meltdowns when he was younger, and all we could do was ride them out. I would spend long minutes (and in some cases, hours) holding him tightly to keep him and others safe, and listening to him scream. But over time I learned what the triggers were and I figured out ways to avoid or mitigate them. I learned what to do if I saw the precursor to a meltdown. And now, thanks to techniques that both me and my son have learned, those meltdowns happen extremely rarely. We do get tantrums, though – especially now that puberty has hit – and those are dealt with swiftly and sternly. Long story short: if my son is exhibiting autistic behaviour that is disruptive to others, I explain that he has autism, and most people are extremely kind and understanding about it. If he is having a typical bratty-kid tantrum, he gets consequences.

      Thank you for the comment. I really hope things settle down with your neighbour.

    • Interesting, I wouldn’t like to be your neighbour……this comes across very judgementally and I makes me curious whether u have experience yourself dealing with an autistic child. Like all children, they do not come with a “here’s what to do when x, y or z happens” and all parenting styles will be different. Maybe the parents are just doing what they are able to do within their capabilities.

  5. I agree. People, places & establishments should never be forced to endure rude, spiteful or disruptive behavior from ANYONE, whether they have a disorder or not. That is not discrimination AT ALL. If someone wants to be in public, in public places then they should be trained on how to behave in public. PERIOD!!

    • I do think there should be a distinction, though. People with special needs cannot always be held to the same standards as other people. If a disability is causing someone to act in a certain manner that is beyond their control, allowances should be given as long as the caregiver is making reasonable efforts to manage the situation. This is VERY distinct from wilfully disruptive behaviour that nobody is bothering to try and control.

  6. THIS — OMG THIS. I wish you were around to talk to the lady whose child got frustrated because the button he was pushing wouldn’t activate the little voice address system for bus arrivals. He proceeded to beat the thing so hard he rattled the entire bus shelter. Another passenger and I gave the child and parents a “Whoa, really, why is this behavior happening?” look. She proceeds to scream angrily at us about the boy having autism, as though this excused his basically disturbing others around him, including basically threatening us with her husband’s pistol because we were bold enough to tell her to take her child away and restrain him. Granted, I know it’s extremely difficult with a child who has disabilities — my niece, for instance, has cerebral palsy, and is prone to hair-pulling. She thinks it’s funny; my brother does not and will discipline her every single time she does this, and expects the person whose hair she is pulling to tell her no, firmly, and remove her hands from our person. Basically, her disability is not a permission slip to do whatever, no matter how exhausting it is to police her behavior.

    She might have gotten a lot more sympathy had she removed the boy from the object of his frustration and apologized to us for the disturbance he caused us, you know? I mean, I get it. It’s a tough thing to navigate! I’m perfectly happy to make allowances for sensory issues, but I’m not willing to put up with the crazy level of permissiveness that goes on with a very small minority of parents who just don’t understand that the public at large does not have to tolerate anything and everything from a child because of his disability.

    God, that cam out jumbled and angry. I’m sorry for that. Anyway, THANK YOU for saying this! Because yes, it does make it difficult for others to be understanding when we run into behavior like the example I spoke of. I /know/ most parents are not like this, I really do. It just seems like the ones who get attention are the ones who just do. Not. Get. It.

    • I believe that people also have a right not to accept or be tolerant of those that have intolerant attitudes…..I believe that in itself can be discriminatory, especially when they are not living with the experience so do not really have the authority to say.

  7. This makes me sad.

    As a parent of a child with ASC and ADHD I have long since grown a thick skin to the stares and muttered comments I get if my child acts out in public.

    I try my hardest to prevent meltdowns happening in the first place and if a meltdown occurs whilst we are out, I try to minimise the impact for my son and anyone else. This generally means removing him from the area/ situation.

    I do this primarily for my son and his wellbeing. He is the one suffering, five minutes of watching a child’s meltdown and their carer desperately trying to help the child isn’t all that bad for observers but for me and my son it’s hell.

    We do a lot of prep work if he is going to be attending an event, such as a family wedding, where I know he will be under additional stress. We look on google at the site where the event is taking place and talk through all the possible scenarios and how to stay safe and what to do if it becomes too much.

    Most of the time it works, but sometimes it doesn’t and my child has a meltdown which is extremely distressing for both of us.
    I do not allow the meltdown to affect others if I can help it and usually remove my child from the situation and calm him.

    However if you see a child or adult in meltdown, why not quietly and calmly ask their carer if there is anything you can do to help? I have lost count of the times I have had to try and calm a distressed child and had to deal with disapproving stares whilst people simply look on.

    It’s hard work on the parents too, whilst I agree that we cannot compromise on the safety of others, a little understanding goes a long way.

    • In re-reading this post, I realize that I didn’t really articulate my point clearly. As an autism mom myself, I have dealt with MANY public meltdowns. I never judge parents who are in this situation, and I offer a helping hand in circumstances where it’s appropriate. The issue I have is with parents and caregivers who believe that the world has to bend over backwards for a child with autism just because the child has autism. If my child is melting down in public and I stand there doing NOTHING, can I really expect people to not get upset? If a child with autism is – through no fault of his own or whichever parent he is with – a safety risk to passengers on a plane, is it reasonable to accuse the airline of discrimination if they decide to remove the risk?

      I absolutely detest discrimination against people with autism, and I fight tooth and nail against it. But not all cases of perceived discrimination are, in fact, discrimination.

      • As an autistic adult, let me be the first to shake your hand in dealing with meltdowns. We aren’t easy to deal with, as we both know.

        I agree with your position. It is we autistic folk that must adapt to the environment, not the other way around. Granted, we have an extremely difficult time adapting (I myself hate bright light, but an outfit that allows sunglasses works quite well as needed) but it IS possible.

        I have noticed that once the foundation of social interaction is laid down, building on those skills becomes MUCH easier. Medications and good behavior therapists help tremendously as well. It DOES get easier for both the family and the child. It just takes time.

        Thank you for treating your child as people and not problem. It warms my heart to know this. Too much special treatment ends up REVERSING all that hard work of gaining independence.

  8. I am autistic myself. Type 3. I am a fully functioning adult, with a full time job, a part time job, and a place of my own. No special privileges for me, thank you, although I WAS given the choice to go on disability.

    I was raised by a no-nonsense Navy officer before autism was really known. It wasn’t until my very early adulthood that a proper diagnosis was made, so I got on early in the program.

    I will say this, we usually have a difficult time with communicating our needs. A meltdown is typically our only way of dealing with whats in our heads. I remember hearing ‘use your words’ a LOT growing up. My parents didn’t put up with much, which had both good and bad consequences. I learned a lot.

    Freakouts in restaurants are bad enough. Freakouts with kids and no parental attempt? A WHOLE lot worse.

    Autism is no excuse. If anything we must hold ourselves to a HIGHER standard due to our higher than normal intelligence and strong empathy. HOWEVER, we have to learn how to control our minds before we can control our bodies. It’s the same as a child learning to walk. He has to find, coordinate and use the muscles appropriately.

    Just my two cents.

  9. I’m starting to suspect that my 3 year old nephew is autistic. His parents are completely in denial or completely clueless. He got really violent with me one day for no reason at all. I was sitting in a chair talking with my husband & his parents. There were no weird lights, no loud sounds. Just people talking at a normal tone in a quiet room. From across the room I see my nephew running straight toward me with the nastiest, meanest face I have ever seen. He looked like he wanted to kill me. He came at me & punched me in the chest so hard it actually left a bruise! I’m 32. I have a 4 year old daughter who my nephew outweighs by about 15 lbs. If he did that to her, she would be hurt really bad. The really really bad thing is that everyone saw him do this & Said nothing!!!! Nobody even cared. I squeezed his arm really hard & got down in his face. I told him that is not allowed, he hurt me & never do that again. Then everyone looked at me like I was the bad guy! Believe me, I was restraining myself like you would not believe. What should I do when we are at family functions & this stuff happens again? Nobody disciplines him or even says anything. They don’t even blink. If he attacks my daughter I really don’t know if I could show restraint. I really do my best to always make sure he isn’t too close to my daughter. Oh, & before anyone asks, he shows many other symptoms & signs of autism. My suspicions are not based on this incident by itself, this is just what happened to really really scare me.