Two moms who have been there offer tips on how you can help if you see a child with autism or other special needs having a hard time in public.
Susan Matanza and son Riley
Credit: Susan Matanza

Kids with autism need to go out into the world. They need to experience parks, stores, museums, and everything else that other children do in order to learn how to act, what to expect, and to be enriched.

I firmly believe this, and I try to take my son Liam, a non-speaking 7-year-old on the spectrum, out into the community as often as possible. Usually it goes beautifully, but some days our intrepid way of living backfires. If I push an outing too long, his sensory issues overwhelm him and he melts down. This happened last week on a routine trip to Target. I had a cart full of groceries, and Liam had had enough. As he got increasingly more frustrated and I did battle with a malfunctioning self-checkout, several women approached me. Some of them told me I was doing a good job while others asked if I needed help, and one, a new friend named Susan Matanza, bagged my groceries and helped me to the car. Her kindness was a wonderful gift, and as we talked I learned that she also has a son on the spectrum, had run a preschool that helped many kids with special needs, and now she works for a local community organization. When I asked her why she felt drawn to help me, she told me a story that touched my heart and reminded me that we all need help some days:

"When my son, Riley, who's now 11, was around 3 years old, I took him to the Portland Zoo," Susan told me. "I had grand plans for a great time with my nonverbal and unpredictable son, who has autism, PDDNOS, submucosal cleft, scoliosis, fine motor and gross motor disorder, and he's missing half of his number 5 chromosome. Riley and I went into the restaurant, sat down, and immediately he went into total screaming meltdown mode. This was my first experience taking him somewhere so public where I would be judged on my 'bad kid' and 'poor parenting skills.' I grabbed some snacks out of our bag and offered them to him. He refused, screaming at the top of his lungs and swinging around wildly in the booth. This went on for at least thre minutes. I broke down in tears. I was begging him to stop, but he didn't understand.

"When I had lost all hope and knew everyone was staring and felt like they were judging me, a kind woman tapped my shoulder and said, 'It's ok. Do you need help?' Of course I said 'No,' but she sat down anyway. She started talking to my son and got his attention. He calmed down, and she continued to talk to him. Our food came, he calmly ate, and we enjoyed the rest of the day at the zoo.

"When I reflected on this moment, I was shocked she had helped me, that she didn't judge me or my son, and that she was patient. I could feel she cared. I loved that she treated me like a normal person who just needed a helping hand. She changed my thoughts on helping others that day. I learned that it's ok to approach someone in need and most of the time it's welcome. I learned that the stares and whispers don't matter because the people who do care are out there, and I vowed to be one of them."

Susan's experience with this kind woman at the zoo led her to help me. Now, she and I want to share some tips if you ever find yourself in a similar situation. We know it can be intimidating if you see a child with autism or other special needs having a meltdown or a hard time, but both of us agree your help is most welcome and appreciated.

  • Just help. Although you might not know what to do, don't hesitate to offer some help. Even just a kind word, a pat on the shoulder, or an "It's ok, your doing great" could go a long way.
  • Keep perspective on the situation, and don't make judgments. Parents of kids with special needs often feel judged, so please don't stare, comment on our parenting, or make denigrating comments about our kids. We are all human, and everyone has a hard time occasionally. Remember if you're seeing us in a tough moment, this is just one moment, and it usually doesn't reflect the reality of the rest of our lives.
  • Be persistent. We may say "no" to you asking if you can help, but that's because we're accustomed to thinking we're on our own. Please help us anyway. Just stand there and reassure us we're doing our best, bag our groceries, offer us some hope, whatever you think we might need will be quite appreciated.

I'm so glad Susan helped me last week, and I thank her too for this reminder: "Parenting a special needs child is extra difficult and really needs the village to come together."

You can be a part of that village—even if you don't have specialized training, or don't know much about special needs—and believe me, we'd really love to have your help.

Jamie Pacton lives near Portland where she drinks loads of coffee, dreams of sailing, and enjoys each day with her husband and two sons. Find her at, Facebook (Jamie Pacton), and Twitter @jamiepacton.