The story’s trending: A man in a movie theater in Kent, Washington, got ticked off at a few rowdy kids and reportedly punched a 10-year-old boy in the face, knocking out a tooth and giving him a bloody nose. The man’s been charged with second-degree assault.
Incidents like this scare the crap out of me. I have a 9-year-old who often disturbs the peace. Sometimes, Max wails. On occasion, he screeches. He isn’t being “bad”— he got brain damage at birth that caused cerebral palsy and sensory issues. You wouldn’t know it to look at him, though, and so people don’t hold back from trying to discipline him.
“Shhhhhhh!” they’ll hiss. “Behave!”
“Tsk, tsk,” old ladies cluck.
And, lobbed at me: “Can you get that child to calm down?”
A few weeks ago, our family went to see a magic show. It was a big deal for Max, who’d never been to one. I sat with him in the theater before it started, holding him tight as he wailed; he was unnerved by the darkness and new setting, but I hoped he’d calm down once the show started and enjoy it. Parents cast annoyed looks our way or shook their heads in disgust; I knew they were wondering if he’d disrupt the performance. I felt uncomfortable and miserable, too. At times like these I’ll often say “Sorry, he has special needs,” but I was so engrossed in making sure Max didn’t wiggle out of my arms that I didn’t. When the show began and he screeched, my husband immediately whisked him outside.
In situations like this I usually do everything within my power to encourage Max and be considerate of others. We showed up 45 minutes before the performance so Max could adjust to the theater. I asked the house manager to let us in early, which he kindly did, and then I sat with Max in an empty seat toward the back, on the aisle so we could make a quick escape if need be. All people saw and heard was a disruptive kid, though, and some were ticked off.
Brat rage: Parents of kids with special needs deal with it all the time, this assumption that a child is acting out because he’s got brat tendencies, lousy parents or both. “No matter how long I’ve been doing this parenting thing, I’ll admit that it always feels like a kick in the stomach when I get those judgmental looks or under-the-breath comments,” says my friend Jennifer Byde Myers, coeditor of Thinking Person’s Guide To Autism and mom to a boy with cerebral palsy and autism. Once, as her son was walking down a plane aisle, he accidentally put his hand on a man’s shoulder and made a noise. The man bellowed, “What’s wrong with that boy? Why can’t you control your son?” and glared at her. As she wrote, “He had decided there was something wrong with my child, and that I was a bad parent in one fell swoop.” Jennifer returned to her seat and sobbed.
That man’s response to the noisy kid in the movie theater was over the top and not the norm. Still, we’re living in a time when people don’t hold back from expressing their feelings online or in real life, so there’s a good chance we’ll be seeing more incidents of brat rage — and more kids with special needs unjustly victimized. There’s a growing number of them; 1 in 88 children now fall on the autism spectrum, a 23 percent rise in ASD in a two-year period according to the recent study from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. These kids often appear “typical,” but may have sensory or behavioral issues that make others think they’re garden-variety brats.
While it’s understandable why people get frustrated by a kid acting out, a little open-mindedness would go a long way (and reduce blood pressure). So if you find yourself confronted with a disruptive kid, start by not assuming that the child is misbehaving because he’s got a bad ‘tude or that the parent is at fault. If you want to say something, tell it to me, not my child; he doesn’t deserve to be reprimanded for having a neurological condition. Try, if you can, to start from a place of compassion — for my kid, who’s clearly having a tough time, and for me, too. I so appreciate it when strangers offer up issues, ask if there’s anything they can do or just say, empathetically, “It’s hard, isn’t it?”
My child, like many kids with special needs, has enough challenges to overcome in this world without the contempt of strangers. Give kids the benefit of the doubt before you lash out, and spare their parents the evil eye. There’s a chance neither of them are doing anything inherently wrong or intentionally rude. As Jennifer says, “I move on faster now, hurt for a shorter amount of time, but I wish those people realized that their looks and comments are an attempt at only one thing: To make me feel ashamed. And I refuse to feel that way about my child.”
Read more from Ellen at Love That Max
More to read from 1000 Perplexing Things About Parenthood:
Photo source: Flickr/mdanys