A mum casually gets out of the car at the supermarket and lifts her two year old son into the trolley. The little baby is fast asleep as he is lowered into the trolley still in his car seat. They enter the supermarket casually, the two year old clutching his soft toy cat and pointing at the seagull perched on the car roof.
On entering the supermarket, they walk up and down each isle gathering each item on the list. The two year old speaks in full sentences, his communication way beyond what is expected at his age, telling his mum about the Okapi, which has a stripy bottom like a zebra and the top half of a horse. He is concerned that they are now endangered, and how he can help them to survive. The mum admits to herself that she has never heard of such a creature, and can’t work out where her son has come across such detail on the animal.
As they approach the bakery section, to tick bagels off their list, a frustrated father stands watching as his little girl lies kicking and screaming on the floor. He doesn’t seem to be doing anything As the girl screams and kicks out, he grabs a bag of chocolate donuts, and hands one to the girl, who takes it and calms down.
The mother takes some bagels off the shelf and stares at the scene in front of her. Appalled at how the child has “won”. There has been no lesson learnt here, the child will continue to throw a tantrum the next time she wants something. “My children will never act like that”, she silently thinks.
This woman in the supermarket, was me 5 years ago. I had it all together. I had never been closely subjected to disabilities or hardships that many parents face on a day to day basis. When I saw kids misbehaving, I assumed bad parenting. If I could have control over my children in public places, why couldn’t everyone else?
When the word autism started to be mentioned in regards to my youngest son, Rhys, I had no clue what it meant. I had no experience or knowledge of autism, all I had was the image of a kid rocking back and forth in the corner. People often mention the film Rainman, but I hadn’t even watched that!
When he got his referral for speech therapy, I was excited and truly believed that he would walk into a session, and the expert would look at him, wave her magic wand and tell him to talk…and he would. I wish someone had told me how it actually worked and the process he would have to go through before he would even say his first word.
The reality was that I didn’t even get him into the room for the first speech session. This was the baseline I had to start working from before I could even consider trying to get him to communicate.
As Rhys grew older, I became the parent in the supermarket with the child in meltdown. I had transitioned from this totally in control super-mum to a parent in the school playground, trying desperately to get my eldest into school, while Rhys was in full on meltdown on the playground floor.
Parents would be staring at me, and the ones who had enough courage, would come up to me and ask, “Are you alright, anything I can do to help?” I would sometimes hold back the anger, but mostly the tears, and pray that the ground would open up and swallow me.
Every morning I would wake up and think “Today is going to be a better day”. My positive hat was on and I was ready to take on any challenge. But each day was no better than the one before, and sometimes worse. I would try to do normal every day chores, but was met with meltdowns. I started to lose confidence in my abilities, and as each day became more challenging, the energy and drive I had before, started to fade.
As time moved on, the school run became unbearable. I would manage to get the kids out of the house, only to be met with Rhys distraught as he had thought we were going in the car, only to now be dragged across the road to the school. A task that was so simple to every other family, the need to walk a few meters across the road, became too much for me.
I didn’t know how to move forward. I felt sorry for my eldest son, who had to endure a screaming brother alongside him and a mum who was still in her joggers and bed-hair, trying to get across a road. Life had taken a 180 degree turn and I couldn’t do it. When I started to meet other mums whose children had autism, they told me that I would develop a thick skin and that my focus must be on my child and I need to look at ways to decrease any anxiety or triggers that would cause meltdowns.
I had to take a step back and work out how I could cope with this change to my life – as I had previously known it.
I was not the super-mum I use to be. I was a mum who had to work out how to cope. I gathered friends, family and professionals to help me get back into a place where I could start to move forward. I stopped doing the school run and my husband shifted his hours at work to be there to pick up our eldest. It was alarming to think that it was impossible for me to walk across the road to collect my kid. But it was.
I had been broken down and lost all confidence in myself and the ability to find strength to do the simplest of tasks. It took 2 years to get to where I am now. I can now pause and think “I am doing it, I am in control”. I am now a mum with 3 kids, one who is autistic, but I feel I am getting my super-mum status back – just in a slightly different way.
There have been many strategies learnt, some advantageous and others just not practical. But we are getting there. Most days are now “good days”, and challenges come and are conquered. They have made me stronger and able to take on more than I ever expected I could.
When I see parents in public places, with their children kicking off, or having a full on meltdown, I now look at it in a different light. That child may be overwhelmed and have challenges they are trying to overcome. The parent may not have a clue what to do, or they may know that that a chocolate donut will distract their child enough to allow them to calm down and deal with the situation at hand.
We cannot look at a situation in isolation and think we know better, or assume we know what is going on in that family’s lives. We don’t have the back story or the full picture of what challenges all parties are facing.
We all need support and need to accept each other for who we are. We are all trying our best at this monstrosity called life. So don’t stare and mutter under your breath a comment that will be of no assistance to anyone. Look to see how you can help, or if you don’t know how to help, a comment such as “We have all been there, you are doing ok!”, will work a treat and help that person take a breath and grab that magic donut.