What I did to help my 5-year-old autistic son overcome his intense fear of indoor spaces might not have been right or even safe. Doctors didn’t recommend it. The people who witnessed it were appalled, understandably. I don’t suggest this for others.
If you are going to start an article like this? Chances are you should not be writing the article at all. If you know what you did to your 5-year-old (5-year-old!) was not right or safe, why wouldn't you caution others to find another way? A way that was safe and right. A way that respected the boundaries, the autonomy and the humanness of your 5-year-old child?
You admit you were impatient. You admit you were not trained in restraint (a violent act even if you are trained.) This article, from the very start, was never about your child. It was about you. Who had no patience. Who called it a burden when your child became overwhelmed. I understand not wanting to be judged. But abusing your child should cause shame. And I can think of so many things more important than getting your autistic child out in the world.
Like his safety. His dignity.
(Also, he was not having a tantrum in those public places. He was having a panic response at experiencing sensory overload.)
You say that nothing else had worked for your son. You list the methods you tried (perhaps to make clear that this was a last resort.) The thing is, you are missing one very important key word: yet. Nothing else had worked for your son yet. People with disabilities often have our own timetables. It is not fair to measure the progress of your disabled child against nondisabled kids (or, in this case, the progress of your autistic child against neurotypical peers.) Chances are (and were) that he would have gotten there on his own, with respect for his needs, and accommodations that work for him.
Seeing Elmo in Sesame Street Live is not something most would consider "a desperate time." Now, if your child was ill and had to go to the doctor to get medicine (not able to cope with the sensory overload but needing to go anyway?) That's what I would consider a desperate time. There is no need to force your child to see his favorite Sesame Street character. There's really not.
|[Image is: Life sized Sesame Street characters - including Elmo - as you'd see them in Sesame Street Live.]|
You say there was nothing anyone could say to convince you that you were wrong in what you were about to try. Because you viewed yourself as saving your son from a life entrapped by his autistic phobias. But just because he was afraid of public places at 5 years old does not mean he will always be. Giving him time and space is okay. Your son is not neurotypical. He experiences the world differently. Let him.
Your mindset that day was essentially that the end would justify the means. You said that if neither of you were physically hurt, that his fear will somehow be put behind him, and he'll have a more positive association of this place? But how is driving your kindergartener to a place you know terrifies him going to reset any of his associations? At most (at this point) he is learning that his feelings don't matter. Behavior is communication, and you have stated that you knew you were taking your son to this place absolutely against his will. Would you gain anything if someone bigger and stronger than you (who was supposed to love and protect you) instead brought you somewhere they knew you actively feared and forced you to stay there?
You describe your son's strength at trying to get back outside as furious. You say he is a thoroughbred of resistance. But your son is not furious, he is panicking. And he is not a hot-blooded horse, he is a human being, trying desperately to get out of a beyond scary, painful, overwhelming situation.
The lengths you go to, to eventually pin your son to the ground between your thighs and inch him forward toward the doors where the show is taking place is shocking...but not. Because as a disabled person, violence done to us by parents seems par for the course in this society. It's for this reason that my heart leapt, knowing that in this case, there were poeple speaking out against what you were doing - for your son. Telling you the obvious - he doesn't want to go in there.
You use his autism as a valid reason to harm him. That is so despicable. Even more so? You quote the ADA as though it gives you permission to treat your son so egregiously. (Truth time? It does not. The ADA means he has the right to be there if he wants to be, not that you have the right to pin him down between your thighs and drag him into a theatre for 40 minutes as he screams.)
You cite yourself as his reasonable accommodation, but you are not. Accommodations for your son in this case? Would look like headphones. Sunglasses. They would look like a stim toy and/or other comfort object. They could look like inquiring about taking your son to a dress rehearsal of a show he likes, without an audience present. Preparing him for what he could expect in advance. Your son's 'reasonable accommodations' do not include being pinned to the ground by his mom, and dragged across the floor in public for 40 minutes as he screams in terror and fights to get away.
That is not an accommodation. That is abuse. That is you traumatizing your child. That is you forcing compliance. That is never okay.
Seeing Elmo stuns your son. He cannot scream. Cannot speak. But you continue to slide him along the floor, clutched between your thighs. Until he sits up. You walk him to his seat. He's focused on Elmo. (Even after something scary, the sight of a familiar character is welcome.) But just because he is not showing you his hurt, doesn't mean he is okay.
You say what worked for your son was a single traumatic episode. Anything that involves traumatizing your son should not be considered a success. He returns to these places because you bring him. He does not fight because he knows it will not do any good. He is no match for you, strength wise. He has learned to mask what he is feeling, but that does not mean he no longer feels it.
You say that you have brought him other places, and that it takes him less time to acclimate now. Though he is initially confused and frightened but always adjusted.
He has not adjusted, he is coping. Covering. You have no idea how hard he might be working in those moments to pass...for you...for your comfort.
You say that his overall demeanor became as calm and predictable as his perception of life itself. You say this is the biggest win.
But is it?
Is traumatizing your son worth it to you? Is it so important to you that your son is less autistic that you would not only harm him this way in public, but then write an article about it unapologetically? Write a book about his most intense private struggles?
What will your son think when he reads what you've written? Will he feel loved? Valued? Will he feel respected?
I urge you to think abut these things. Your son is a human being. Don't forget that.