Autism Public Meltdowns

A mother of a child with autism reported “dying a thousand deaths” as people around her in the large discount store stared disapprovingly at her daughter on the floor screaming, kicking and carrying on as though the world was about to come to an end. The meltdown seemed to come out of the blue. Mom said the screaming began as they passed from the Dora The Explorer display and entered the kitchen implements section. She said they had been shopping for about an hour when her daughter descended into a “tizzy.”

Public meltdowns are especially difficult for several reasons. The most obvious is that your child’s screaming and flailing draws unwelcome attention to you and your child. Second, you think you should be able to make her or him stop their outburst, but you can’t. Third, you suspect that maybe you did something wrong that led to the outburst. Finally, you are aware that people around you think you are a lousy parent because you are “coddling” your child instead of putting your foot down. Little do they know!
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Rules of Thumb About Outings

• Don’t take your child out during naptime

• Don't stay out too long at a stretch. Usually an hour is plenty.

• As you are about to leave home on your way to the first store say, “No crying today. If you don’t cry, you can
have an X when we leave the store (e.g. Cub, Kroger, Target or Walmart).” X should be a favorite beverage or
• If your child reads, make a list of places you are going to visit on your outing in order. If not, prepare a visual
schedule by downloading images from the internet and inserting them in plastic sleeves in visual schedule board.
Keep the pictures because you’ll need them later on another outing.

• As you are about to complete shopping in one store and are move on to the next, ask your child what is next on
the schedule. The idea is to keep the child engaged and creating a feeling of having some control over decision-

• When shopping in supermarket or discount store, plan your route through the store in advance, with transit
through toy or candy departments last, immediately before checkout. If there are any other high risk sections,
avoid them altogether or enter them last before leaving the store.

• Plan frequent breaks for snacks or running around in a mall play center or area.

• Give your child choices from time to time during breaks, such as having some pieces of fresh fruit or an Orange

What Do I Do if She Has a Meltdown Anyway?

Push your cart to the Support Services Desk and tell the clerk you have to leave the store for a few minutes and will return to check out shortly. You may need to show the clerk a driver’s license or other ID. Leave the shopping cart with the clerk, and then, pick up your child (who will likely be yelling and screaming) and carry him or her out to the car. Put the child in the back seat and buckle them in their car seat. Get in the car on the driver’s seat side, pick up a newspaper and proceed to read the newspaper while saying absolutely nothing to the child. It will be tempting to threaten or cajole. Don't do it! Don’t promise the child a treat if s/he stops crying. That is a big mistake. When s/he stops their tantrum, tell her/him you are going to return to the store and get your groceries and then both of you are going to go home. No treats today.

Most of the time, no more than 2-3 such “car time outs” are necessary to put a stop to occasional meltdowns you are unable to prevent.

By the way, the child described above probably thought she was going to be able to play with a Dora the Explorer doll, and when Mom passed on by without offering that opportunity, that set off her emotional outburst. It would help if the child were told in advance that she is NOT going to be given a Dora doll, but she will receive a Dora sticker if she doesn't cry. She was also probably tired from staying out too long.

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