June 11, 2019
A day at a theme park can present a bevy of challenges for all families, whether you have children who are neurodiverse or not. Thankfully, for a New York mom (and friend of the Parents brand) Lenore Koppelman, a stressful moment morphed into a special one, thanks to a theme park employee's heartwarming act of solidarity. Back on May 28, Koppelman, her husband, and their 9-year-old son Ralph were enjoying a day at Universal Orlando.
Koppelman took to Facebook to share the moving series of events that played out that day, writing, "Ralph is awesomely autistic, and we are proud to be a neurodiverse family. As wonderful, loving, intelligent and incredible as Ralph is, sometimes he struggles. (Don't we all?) When he struggles the hardest, he can have something known as an 'autistic meltdown.' Some people who are not educated about autism might see it as a temper tantrum. But the fact of the matter is that it is not the act of a spoiled and naughty child. It's a cry for help. This is Ralph's way of saying 'I don't know how to monitor and regulate my emotions right now. I need help, please! I'm scared! I'm overwhelmed! I want to feel better and I don't know how!' And here came Jen to the rescue."
All Ralph wanted to do was go on The Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man ride at Islands of Adventure. But because the family was walking in a particular direction through the park, Spider-Man was set to be their final ride of the day. "He kept on asking us if the ride was coming up soon, and we would reassure him and say 'Soon, Baby. Soon. First there are other rides before that one. That one is at the end. It's the last island. So we have to ride the other ones first. Okay?'" Koppelman wrote. "He was SO patient for SO long."
When the family finally made it to the ride, Ralph "was leaping for joy," Koppelman shared. "He thought 'OH WOW! This is IT! FINALLY!' and you should have seen the SMILE on his face. It was incredible. Then, when it was almost our turn to board, and he could see the end in sight, the vehicles right in front of us, we got the news that the ride had broken down."
Everyone was asked to exit, and that's when Koppelman said her son, "understandably, lost it. (Wouldn't you?). My husband and I know the signs. We could see it coming, like an oncoming train. And yet we couldn't dodge out of the way. There was nowhere else to go. The autistic meltdown was GOING to HAPPEN. And happen it DID."
The 9-year-old "collapsed onto the floor while crowds of people were attempting to exit the ride and the gift shop attached to it. He began sobbing, screaming, rocking, hyperventilating, and truly struggling to breathe. A woman who worked there named Jen came over... no... no, she RUSHED over... and while I frantically kept trying to get him to stand up so he wouldn't get trampled on by people, she encouraged me to leave him on the floor if that is where he needed to be."
Koppleman shared that Jen then "got down on the floor WITH HIM. She rested next to him while he cried his heart out, and she helped him breathe again. She spoke to him so calmly, and while he screamed and sobbed, she gently kept encouraging him to let it all out. She told people to keep on walking around them, so they would stop standing there and staring. And then she told him it was okay for him to be sad and feel this way. She understood. She would feel the same way too. His feelings were validated. And she told him he could lay there with her as long as he needed to until he felt better."
Eventually, Ralph "DID feel better," his mom explained. "So they got up, and she told him he could have something from the gift shop to help him feel even better still. Anything up to $50. All he wanted was a tiny notebook and pen to write in about the size of my hand, and a tiny ID tag with Spiderman's face on it and his name. She suggested some other toys that were even more expensive, and he looked at her and said 'No thanks, I'm good.' And he SMILED. And THANKED her. He was exhausted and rattled, as we ALL get after one of his rare epic meltdowns. But what a relief it was that it was over."
Koppelman said she asked Jen how she knew what to do in that kind of situation, and she said that employees at Universal Studios get "special training when it comes to people who are awesomely autistic, as well as other special needs." The proud mom hugged the Universal employee "for the LONGEST time ... several times, if I'm being honest." Then, the Koppelman family went directly to the customer relations office to "sing Jen's praises."
The proud mom tells Parents.com that during the meltdown she was experiencing "amazement" and was "in awe that Jen knew what to do. Most people seem to be somewhat clueless about how to handle an autistic meltdown. And they do everything they shouldn't do, which only makes the problem worse. But Jen did everything right. And I was standing there thinking, 'who is this woman? And how does she know?'"
Since being posted on May 28, Koppleman's story has wracked up 11K supportive comments and 42K shares. A commenter named Laura Klein wrote, "Love love LOVE this!!! So thrilled to see how far we’ve come in the support of those with special needs. It takes a village, and it looks like we have a great one." Eunice Morelli shared, "These are the real fairy tale beautiful princesses! Reading this made me cry... we should all make the world an amazing place to live..." Lyn McDade said, "I love this story. I have a female version of Ralphie who totally controls herself for the most part in public but finds it difficult to keep it together once out of the public eye. What a wonderful story of support."
Koppelman says the best part of the reaction to her story has been "the movement of kindness and compassion." She says she heard from "a grandmother who struggled to accept her grandson's autism diagnosis who suddenly thanked us for helping her to do so. She said she has oftentimes lost patience with him and assumed that his parents simply weren't disciplining him properly. Something about our story made her change her mind." A police officer wrote to say he's now "inspired to make sure the entire department where they work gets better, more up-to-date training."
"We saw dozens upon dozens of replies from people all over the country saying that they have avoided taking their family on any fun vacations," Koppelman notes. "They have stayed home every school break, because they were worried that their neurodiverse family member would not be treated well at a theme park, should they become overwhelmed and deeply stressed. They are all planning trips to Orlando and told us that they have our post to thank."
Additionally, many touched by the story have told Koppleman that they were inspired to start speaking up when good things happen, she says. "Too often, people are quick to complain when something goes wrong," the proud mom shared. "But when something goes right, they say nothing. I like to make it a point to praise and thank people when they do good in the world. It feels good, and it's fun. I've noticed posts from people recently saying that they are inspired to do that more often, themselves. That can only lead to a kinder, gentler world filled with more supportive people."
She also hopes Ralph's story spreads the word about autism acceptance. "We all know that autism exists," Koppelman notes. "But awareness is simply not enough. We need to create a world for our children where they are more than merely noticed. We need to create a world where they are embraced and accepted. A world where our children are allowed to be different. Where their differences are celebrated, instead of discouraged. Where they are not frowned upon for stimming out in the open, or having the occasional perfectly understandable meltdown. Where far more notice the tremendous gifts that awesomely autistic people give to this world, which help make it a far better place."
Ultimately, she hopes that her post reminds people that "the world is an extremely diverse place, and neurodiversity is an essential part of that. Sometimes, the way that one person behaves might not make sense to YOU, but that doesn't mean that it doesn't make sense. They may have a perfectly valid reason for behaving that way. And if there is a way that you could possibly help, or teach your children to be kind and offer to help, all the better. Maybe that means learning how to be a good listener. Maybe it means learning the difference between being sympathy and empathy. Maybe it simply means learning how to say, 'I'm just going to sit here with you until you feel better.' And to recognize that no matter who they are, everybody deserves dignity, patience, acceptance, and love."