Don’t be so quick to judge kids’ public behavior

Jun 28, 2012 at 5:30 p.m. ET

Not all children with special needs necessarily look like they have special needs. It’s important to remember not to judge the behavior of children while in public settings because you never know if you are silently damaging a child’s self-esteem.

The looks

There was a time when the screaming and unpredictable outbursts led me to the point of seclusion. My husband called it “baby in a bubble” and in all honesty, it was. I had a very hard time explaining my situation to family and friends. I couldn’t quite explain how these outbursts were different than most of the other toddlers I have known and seen — including my oldest child.

Everywhere we went, my son had difficulties and people would stare at me with either disgust or empathy. I actually welcomed the empathetic faces because it was only then that I thought maybe I wasn’t alone. Maybe their child acted like mine or maybe they thought we were having an “off” day. It was hard to walk around with the overwhelming feeling that I couldn't help him or didn’t know what he needed. Those feelings eventually start to eat at you… And the looks from complete strangers didn’t help the situation.

How to deal with Sensory Processing Disorder meltdowns >>

Picking our battles

As any parent to a child with special needs knows, there are days when you just need to pick your battles. Maybe you have to cancel a play date or reschedule an outing… And that’s OK. As important it is to support and advocate for your child, it’s also important to pick your battles in different situations you can control and surround yourself with positive and informed support.

  • Surround yourself with supportive friends and family.
  • Seek out family education.
  • Find a good counseling program for family and marriage.
  • Research special education programs.
  • Join community support groups.
  • Pay close attention to your child’s positives, strengths, abilities and self-esteem.

You may not see it

You would never know my son had special needs just by looking at him. It’s not until he flips his light switch (as we call it) that people realize there’s more to him than meets the eye. Before I became a parent, I was aware of the different developmental delays and disorders, but now that we’re living it, I’ve learned so much more than I could have ever imagined. I also show more empathy to fellow parents.

According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, “Intellectual disabilities are often suspected within the first few years of life if children are experiencing lags in the rate of their development in social, self-help, motor skills and language development.” But it’s not always apparent to the parent, doctor or even a complete stranger early on. “Children with a milder form of intellectual disabilities may escape detection until their school years.”

ASD and SPD in public

“Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD) are a group of related brain-based disorders that affect a child’s behaviors, social and communication skills.” There are many different levels on the autism spectrum including Asperger's. My son happens to have Pervasive Developmental Disorder-Not Otherwise Specified or PDD-NOS. He also has a neurological disorder that causes overstimulation to some of his senses called Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD). Between the two, we never know what kind of mood he will be in from minute to minute.

Parent’s reaction to the judgment

I’m learning to bite my tongue while out in public. Don’t get me wrong, there are days I want to scream out in the middle of the grocery store that my son has ASD/SPD — and hope that provides an excuse for his actions in public (and hopefully stops people from staring at him). I’d rather everyone stare at me. But I'm not only guessing what my child needs, what it is that set him off and what my next move will be, I'm also parenting him and hoping to lead by example.

Answering questions about your special needs child >>

Source: AAP's

More about children and special needs

Learn to recognize Sensory Processing Disorder symptoms
Living with autism: Now what?
Developmental delays in kids