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Lead with love or get out of the way

Updated on October 8, 2015

Oh, how we love to judge.

As I scrolled mindlessly through major headlines and social media slop on my phone, the story above caught my eye.

"Hmmm...," I thought. "The headline indicates it's not what you think, so it's probably one of those stories where the guy defends the kid and the mother. That's a good ending, and I could definitely use one of those right now. I'll click and see."

Just as I thought, the article relayed a social media post by an actor whose production of "The King and I" had been interrupted by the reactions of people who wanted a mother and son removed from the show.

No, I do not mean that the child interrupted the show. I mean that the people who were grumbling and protesting interrupted it.

The child who "yelped" during the show did so during a fairly intense scene, and the mother tried to calm him. When she couldn't, she attempted to remove him from the situation, but he refused. The people near them began calling for the mother and son to be removed from the theater, which caused further disruption and, ultimately, was probably far more disruptive than the child.

The link below details actor Kelvin Moon Loh's response to the situation, and I could not agree with what he says any more if I tried.

You can't possibly understand unless you've lived it.

I get it. I do.

The grumblers paid all that money to see a Broadway show. They got dressed up, looked forward to an afternoon of quality theater and settled into their seat prepared to be dazzled. They were probably enjoying the show until this young man disrupted it, and they became increasingly frustrated when the mother couldn't control her child.

I can't say I don't understand. I do. Rarely does the chance to do something like this present itself, and when it does, I want to enjoy this relaxation rarity. At times like that, disruptions are never welcomed with happily open arms.

But we don't know exactly what was going on. We can't. Even Mr. Loh would have to admit he doesn't fully understand what the mother and child felt, and unless we can somehow invent a machine to take us back to that exact moment and grant us the ability to see into someone's thoughts, we will never know how those moments unfolded in the mind of that child or his mother.

As the mother of a two-year-old who struggles with mild Sensory Processing Disorder issues and as someone who struggles daily with it myself, I can tell you that the mother was frustrated. She was possibly even angry. She was very likely tired, disappointed and sad.

But do not mistake those feelings for embarrassment or for any kind of disdain for her child. She was probably (rightfully) frustrated with the audience who were grumbling and demanding she and her child be removed. She paid for her tickets, too, just like they did, and she deserved an equal chance to enjoy her afternoon. Instead, she found herself soothing a struggling child, and that can be a heartbreaking, mind-grinding exercise in beating-your-head-against-the-wall futility.

It's literally painful. It hurts. Actual pain here, folks.

When your child is struggling with processing the world's constant barrage of sensory input, there aren't many things you can do to "fix" him. You can offer reassurance, and you can let him know you're there. Although it's not a good idea to say, "It's okay" (because clearly it is NOT okay to that child), you can say things like, "I'm here if you need me," "How can I help" and "I know you're not okay right now, but you will be." Simply saying, "I love you" can go a long way, too.

Hold him in a snug hug (assuming he doesn't have an aversion to being touched), and wait it out. It will pass. He might be desperately tired or highly energized once it does. When his world synchs back up, you can both breathe a sigh of relief and try to resume whatever it was you were doing. It's possible he will go right back to feeling overwhelmed, but it's also possible the same input won't repeat the effect when reintroduced. That's the deal with things like autism and sensory processing - their isn't a way to predict when the person's brain is going to get mixed signals.

You canNOT force the child to "just stop," "get it together" or "act right." You CAN remove the child from the situation and try to help calm his misfiring mind, but removing the child from the situation is rarely as easy as simply saying, "Come with me. Let's address this." A struggling child does not always have the ability to respond as the larger world would think he should at that moment. He is in his own world. Something has triggered a response, whether it's yelping like this young man or crying and wringing her hands like my Zoey does, and that's how they're coping at that moment. It doesn't make sense to people who don't experience these reactions, and that's easy to understand - unless you've been through it, you can't really understand the pain it can cause both the child and the parent.

When Zoey struggles, I can see it in her eyes. Sometimes it's fear. Sometimes it's overwhelming confusion. Sometimes it's frustration. Whatever it is, it's her life at that moment. Before we figured out what was going on with her, we tried to discipline her out of it. We labeled her our "diva baby" and figured since she was the youngest, she had just been allowed to be spoiled more than her sisters.

I can only imagine how that must've felt to her, especially now that we know she also had hearing problems at the time. She couldn't hear at all in her right ear and heard muffled sounds in her left ear, which is also why she had delayed speech development. Not only was she overwhelmed - she was being corrected by parents who didn't understand what she was going through and were trying to talk her down when she couldn't even understand what was being said to her and couldn't talk to tell us what was wrong.

Yes, it hurts. Every time I think about it, I cringe, and my eyes well with tears. We just didn't know. For me, it hurts even more because I remember what it was like to be told to get over stuff as a kid. Back in the '70s, we didn't know about Sensory Processing Disorder. If you panicked about light in your eyes, had an aversion to noises or textures or any of the other sensory issues we now understand, you were told to stop freaking out and get over it.

"You're okay," people said. "It's just a *INSERT WHATEVER THE ISSUE WAS*. Get over it."

Sometimes I tried so hard to squash it that it physically hurt. I didn't want to be bad or disrespectful or...*gasp*...crazy. Over time, I learned to keep my fears, discomforts and struggles to myself as much as I could. I developed the habit of biting the inside of my jaw and pulling the skin off, which was partially responsible for my having braces as an adult to realign my jaw. It wasn't the best thing to do, but it gave me a different focus, and I still do it when I'm deep in thought or stressed. When I'm in a situation from which I can't remove myself, I try to bite my jaw or play with my nails - anything to refocus and block out the trigger. I have cried when I had to sit next to someone eating a banana. I can barely function in a room with too much light. When there are too many people having different conversations and someone tries to talk to me, I feel like my brain is racing. Sometimes I inexplicably feel like everything outside my body is moving at lightning-fast speeds while everything inside me is moving at a normal pace (which feels very slow by comparison).

These things happen daily, but at nearly 41 years old, I understand it. I do the best I can to cope. So why didn't I recognize it in my child? Why did I think I could talk her out of her reactions? Why couldn't I recognize the struggle in her eyes?

You can only do the best you can, whatever that is.

We didn't know, but we know now. As she has gotten a little older and learned to communicate better, she has had fewer meltdowns. We typically know what she can handle and what she can't, and we try to adjust.

Those grumbling people didn't know what was going on, though. They saw a mother who wasn't controlling her child in public. They knew that their high-priced theater experience was being disrupted. Without having a personal understanding of what it means to parent a child like that, it's not that easy to respond appropriately.

But you can respond like a compassionate human. It is possible. If it's not, it should be.

Even if the child hadn't been autistic, there were other factors to consider. The mother was trying to remove him, but he was resisting. If she had yanked him up the by the arm and drug him out (as the people in the area seemed to think she should), he would've panicked and/or fought back and caused even more of a disruption. At that moment, the mother had to weigh her options and determine not only what her child needed but how she could preserve as much peace as possible.

My husband and I have had to remove Zoey from situations, and people have looked at us like we're letting her run our lives. If we hadn't removed her, though, they would've looked at us like we needed to do more to control our child. For the longest time, I felt like I needed to apologize to people around us and make excuses for why she was overwhelmed or having a certain reaction to whatever the catalyst happened to be. I worried that other people would think we were letting her run the house and get away with whatever she wanted because she's the baby of the family.

We have realized that we don't really care what other people think, and I would be willing to bet that the mother whose child was yelping during "The King and I" felt the same way. She was trying to be as respectful as she could by attempting to remove him, but at the end of the day, the opinions of the people around her were 100% inconsequential.

In that moment, when your child is struggling, you do what you can to the best of your ability, and you have to feel good about the effort. Is the child safe? Is he able to refocus and calm himself? Did you do all you could to offer reassurance? When Zoey struggles, we struggle. We no longer worry whether anyone around us is struggling, and we no longer allow ourselves to be disappointed by the disruption to whatever we were doing.

One of us had to take her out of the restaurant while the rest of the family finished eating? Good. Maybe there was something we needed to see in the parking lot. It's not a missed opportunity to enjoy a meal. It's a chance to spend one-on-one time with our daughter and help her feel better. Maybe the other two girls needed one-on-one time with whichever parent stayed behind.

She randomly decides she is going to refuse to go up the steps to the sitter's house? Try to encourage her, and if she can't be persuaded, pick her up. From her two-year-old perspective, those steps are massive. Maybe there's a bug. Maybe the color gray is suddenly offensive. Maybe the light reflected off the doorknob and caught her eye. Who knows? Pick her up. Carry her to the door. Put her down and try again. Snag an extra hug and kiss while you carry her.

It's not about controlling your child or about letting him/her control you. It's about understanding that the world can be a scary place for someone who processes it differently. It's about seeing that there is a child struggling and a parent who is attempting to diffuse the situation. It's just about being human and showing a little compassion to someone who is in a less-than-pleasant situation.

Nothing about your day is so important that someone else owes you a perfect experience. When someone is hurting or struggling, show a little compassion or at least keep your grumbles to yourself. Smile at the parent. Offer a kind word if it will help. Ignore the situation. Focus on the show. Whatever you choose, just make sure you lead with love. A little patience and understanding go a long way in this mixed-up world, and you can always chant to yourself what I grew up hearing from my grandparents: "There, but for the grace of God, go I."

If my child or some other child struggles and all you can feel is how lucky you are to not be dealing with it in your own life, then fine. Feel that. But please, for all our sakes, keep the grumbles and complaints to yourself. If you can't, perhaps it is you who needs to be removed from public.


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