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October 11, 2021 3 min read

Darla Neugebauer, the owner of a Portland, ME, diner has garnered quite a bit of attention after yelling at a toddler for crying in her restaurant. She claims that the child had been crying for nearly an hour before she finally slammed her hands down on the counter and told the girl to be quiet.

After Neugebauer posted about the incident on her business’ Facebook page (in an expletive-laced defense), numerous people have weighed in on both sides -- some applauding her willingness to respond to perceived bad behavior, some criticizing her for yelling at a child instead of calmly addressing the parents. But there’s also been a third response, albeit a far less high-profile one, circulating: What if that child had been autistic?

The toddler in this case, at least as far has been reported, is not autistic. But more than 3.5 million Americans are living with an autism spectrum disorder. Around one in 68 children has autism, one in 42 for boys and one in 189 for girls. That means it’s important that both parents and bystanders think about how to deal with the public meltdowns that sometimes come along with autism.

If You’re a Bystander

The first thing to do if you’re out in public and someone else’s child starts to have a meltdown is take a step back. Of course, it’s irritating when a kid is apparently throwing a fit in a public space. But do you really want to add stress to a situation that already may be extremely overwhelming if that child does, in fact, have an autism spectrum disorder? When children on the autism spectrum have meltdowns, they aren’t throwing temper tantrums because they’re spoiled. They’re simply having trouble processing the stimuli around them due to neurological differences. Compassion -- most often in the form of just leaving the other family alone -- is the appropriate response, not annoyance.

If You’re a Parent/Caregiver

It would be nice if you could rely on people in public spaces to be understanding and compassionate, but unfortunately, that won’t always be the case. Here are some strategies that can help you and your child navigate public spaces:

    • Don’t Feel Compelled to Perform

      Often, when a child is “acting out” in public, people want to see parents look distressed and attempt to calm or discipline them. But many of the actions a parent could take to stop a regular temper tantrum will simply make an autism-related meltdown worse. Don’t feel the need to perform so that your parenting looks right to total strangers.

    • Carry Educational Cards With You

      Some caregivers for children with autism find it useful to carry business card-sized informational cards that explain autism and why it leads to meltdowns. You can hand them to passerby if it appears they are going to intervene, and also use them to avoid confrontation with employees, security personnel, etc.

  • Have the Right Tools

    There are ways you can help your child keep calm and avoid meltdowns. Weighted blankets for toddlers can be one such tool. How are weighted blankets and autism connected? The weight of the blanket creates a calming pressure that helps many children to stay more composed. Weighted blankets for toddlers come in all sorts of colors and patterns, and range in price from about $60 to $175.

Do you have any experience with sensory weighted blankets for toddlers, or other tools to prevent meltdowns? Share your tips in the comments.