Autism, Meltdowns, and the Unexpected Kindness of Strangers in a Supermarket

Back when my two boys were small and I was new to the autism world, however, I spent a lot of time feeling confused and overwhelmed. I wish I could go back in time and reassure that worried mother, "Everything is going to be okay."

One day in particular stands out in my mind. Many years ago I attempted the ambitious feat of grocery shopping with two small boys. Our trip to Kroger took longer than I would have liked, and the sights and sounds became overwhelming for my youngest. At the time he was pre-verbal, and his lack of ability to communicate seemed to heighten his moments of frustration. At that point I knew that he was facing developmental delays, and I suspected autism, but I had not discovered how to best help him when he became upset. I also had not yet learned all his triggers, and constantly walked around in a state of high alert because I never knew what the day would bring.

We finally finished shopping and approached the checkout counter to pay. I abruptly took a package of rice cakes out of the hands of my youngest son without thinking, and placed them on the conveyor belt. He was surprised and upset, because rice cakes were his favorite food at the time. A scream came out of his mouth and he took his frustration out on the object nearest to him: the soft flesh of his older brother. My firstborn started crying, my youngest kept shrieking, and I desperately tried to calm the scene and comfort both children. I soon became completely overwhelmed, and all I could do was press my face against the soft hair of my oldest son and sob. I cried for his hurt, I cried for my own fears, and I cried because it broke my heart to see my youngest baby get so upset. Yet, as disturbing as it was for me, I knew it must be even more terrifying for him to feel so overwhelmed.

So there we stood, immobilized in the middle of the checkout lane; a screaming, crying spectacle.

Suddenly I realized that my items had begun to find their way into the conveyor belt, and strange hands were reaching into my cart. Another employee had come around to help us, and she gave me a reassuring smile. My cashier, once recovered from his initial shock, began to scan my items as quickly as he possibly could. A manager came by, alerted by the noise, and asked if anyone was injured. I gazed at him, tears streaming down my face, and could barely answer. The manager also began to help us check out, and then two more employees arrived. We found ourselves surrounded by people, but they simply began to help and did not gawk or judge. Compassionate eyes gazed at us from every direction and they all worked with a sense of urgency, knowing that my family was in need of immediate retreat.

By the end there were two employees loading my groceries onto the conveyor belt, one scanning, and two more bagging. Someone even came by with two cookies from the bakery and two balloons, offering them to help comfort my children. My tears still flowed, but at this point it was more from gratitude than fear. Then one of the employees accompanied us to our car and loaded my items while I secured my still-upset children into their car seats. He asked, "Is there anything else I can do to help you?"

I made it about half a mile down the road before I lost all emotional control. I pulled the car into a parking lot and called my husband, sobbing, "MAKE. IT. STOP!" Yet even in that moment I found strength in the memory of the kindness that I had just experienced. Their compassion sustained and comforted me.

I didn't know then that I would emerge from that time stronger and happier than ever before. I didn't yet know that I need not be afraid of autism, and that it would provide my son with a unique perspective of the world. I didn't know, but I suspected, that both my boys would grow into wonderful, caring, intelligent young men. I did know that no matter what happened I would love and support them, and do everything I could to help them learn and grow.

As I wept that day, I also didn't know that I would soon find an incredible community of supportive special-needs and autism parents and their amazing children, and that we would continue on this journey together. We share each other's tears as well as celebrate each other's victories. They have taught us about perseverance and acceptance, and their inner beauty helps to redefine the world's standards of value and perfection. With them by our side I know that everything is going to be okay. Their actions are a constant lesson in love, and their compassion sustains and comforts us. We try to do the same for them. "Is there anything I can do to help you?" has become a common phrase in our life, but it all started that day we encountered kindness in a Kroger.

Jennifer Bittner thinks that the world is more interesting when people are willing to embrace the extraordinary, and she fights for autism acceptance and special-needs advocacy. She and her husband enjoy parenting their two Not Boring sons, and she writes about their adventures at SeriouslyNotBoring.com, on her Seriously Not Boring Facebook page, and on Twitter @SrslyNotBoring.

For people with Autism, one of the biggest setbacks can be sensory overload. Crowds, loud noises, and changes can all cause confusion or upset a child with sensory sensitivity. Video courtesy of interactingwithautism.com

Photo of a shopping cart in a supermarket via Shutterstock

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