Why I cried when my child had a meltdown on a busy train

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Isaac was so excited. He had watched so many trains come and go from the busy platform while he flapped, clapped and laughed at the doors opening and closing and the whistle blow as each train pulled away. He loves trains and even more so when he gets to ride on them.

Our train was due next so I held his hand and gathered up our bags. I knelt down beside him and told him we needed coach B and we would sit at a table. I was unsure if he understood as at 8 he has complex autism, learning difficulties and a brain tumour. I had already prepared him though and just the day before we had been on the same train for the journey down. He had loved that journey and I was sure he would love this one too.

But as I helped him over the large gap and headed for our booked seats on the busy train I had no idea of the huge meltdown I was about to face.

The seats we booked were not where they should have been and instead of a table of four we were instead booked to sit on a row of two with the other two seats behind. No amount of explaining would work and Isaac sat down in the aisle of the busy train and screamed.

He screamed and he screamed. He banged his head and bit himself. He shook and kicked his legs. He could not cope with such a simple change as a different seat. It was awful.

He was scared. I was scared. He was crying, his sister was crying and I was crying inside. It was like a scene from a horror movie with all eyes on the train on me and my son and I had no idea what to do. My son was a danger to himself and others and was causing an obstruction on a busy train that was unable to stop.

I sat on the floor beside my traumatised son and tried to calm him as a member of the train crew approached us. Through the noise and distress of my son and his sisters crying I somehow managed to explain to the assistant what the problem was.

Immediately she did everything she could to help. She checked every carriage on that train for a feee table but there was none available. I tried to see if Isaac would sit on some fold out seats near a window or perhaps even stand at the door. I had told him we would be sitting at a table together and that was all his brain could process. One little change had disturbed him so much his body was in crisis.

And then a stranger offered to help. With tears in her own eyes she came down to where I was and said she could see the distress of my son and would he like her table seat. She was not angry or frustrated, or even annoyed; she showed compassion and gave up her own seat to see my child happy.
I thanked her and we sat at her table and immediately Isaac began to calm down. Everyone was looking at me and I was waiting for a stare or rude comment or cheeky remark. We got none of that. All I saw were people moved by what this lady did and by seeing a child with special needs so upset.

I was so touched but more was to come.

IMG_1108As the train employee returned she handed me a bag. She apologised for the booking mistake, gifted us a whole bag of food from the buffet trolley and called ahead to our destination and booked assistance for us. She then asked what Isaac enjoyed doing and when I said he loves pressing buttons she lead him through the entire train and let him press buttons at doors, toilets and even on her ticket machine.

IMG_1107She turned Isaac’s distress to utter delight. As I walked through the carriage and past the passenger who had give up her seat I looked at her and cried. She too has eyes filled with emotion as she watched my son laugh as the toilet door opened when he pressed the button.

Yesterday I witness kindness on a scale that changed me. I saw not only autism awareness but autism acceptance and compassion. Instead of stares I saw smiles. Instead of rudeness I saw understanding.

My child is not badly behaved or spoiled. He was highly distressed over a simple change that I had no control over. He was told something would happen and that didn’t go to plan. He could not voice what was upsetting him and he was scared we were on the wrong train since we had no table.

I cried when my son had a meltdown on a busy train yesterday because I hate seeing him so anxious and scared, but I also cried at the actions of complete strangers and simple acts of kindness that I will never ever forget.

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I found this bag this morning as I was sorting though our luggage. It reminded me again of yesterday and why I cried when my son had a meltdown on a busy train.

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What do you mean she has autism?

Sometimes a child’s disability can be so obvious.We know a child confined to a wheelchair requires support, or a child who is blind or wearing hearing aids may need extra patience and help, but what if the child is accademically able and looks like any other child? They don’t flap, they follow instructions and they are in mainstream education. But stratch beneath the surfice and you might just see that they DO have a disability. Often a hidden disability at that: they are on the autistic spectrum.

This is my daughter:

ImageShe is called Naomi and she is almost 5. She is the youngest of twins and her brother has classic autism, neurofibromatosis type 1, seizures, global developmental delay and a visual impairment. So she has a LOT to deal with! Her brothers difficulties are very obvious so her challenges so often get overlooked. She is so clever, so verbal at home and so co-operative, that her disability gets hidden.

What do you mean she has autism?

She doesn’t flap like her brother, she looks at people when they are talking to her, she goes to ‘normal’ nursery, she’s a girl!

Well, yes girls can have autism too! And not everyone with autism flaps, or lines toys up all day or has a learning disability. Millions of people around the world with autism attend mainstream school. My daughter may be one of them next year.

But at almost 5 she is still in nappies. And until two weeks ago she only ever described people by the clothes they were wearing or as being ‘horrible’ or ‘nice’. In the two and a half years she has attended nursery she has never mentioned a child by name: until 10 days ago. She says she has a ‘friend’ but has only ever whispered to him. She plays beside him, not with him. He just happens to be in her group in nursery and likes similar activities to her. So in her mind he is a friend.

This last week we arranged for her to go on a play date to her new friends house. At first we had to stay. She eventually moved from beside me and went to the play room adjacent to where we were sitting. But she could not bring herself to talk to her friend. Her anxiety level escalated to the point she burst into tears. She had absolutley no idea how to socially interact with another child. It does not come naturally to her at all. And the different house and different toys were overwhelming.

With support and a lot of reasurrance she stayed for an hour without us. But she never spoke to anyone. She was no trouble but she didn’t play with her friend at all. Or his little brother and sister. She just found toys and played herself. She set up some toys and looked at them. We hadn’t told her new friend’s mum about Naomi’s challenges as we wanted to give her a chance to be herself and be just like any other 4 year old. But when we went to pick her up even the mum commented on how Naomi seemed very shy and withdrawn.

What do you mean she has autism?

She had no idea. Because the spectrum of autism is so big, because we don’t always think our child’s friends could have such a thing, because awareness isn’t at the level it needs to be yet, because she is a girl!

But yes she has autism.

She struggles to communicate outside of the home environment due to extreme anxiety. She rarely ever speaks outside the house unless mum is with her and even then only to people she is relaxed around. She has selective mutism. She has no confidence to approach people so can not communicate a simple thing like needing help to get her hands washed or her coat buttoned up. She is verbally able and understands almost everything but can not make that step to initate communication herself. She just freezes.

She get anxious and stressed at routines changing. Not quite to the same extent as her brother who could not, for example, have a bath in the morning because he would assume it was bedtime, but more things like changing teacher at nursery or coming home with mum rather than on the nursery bus. She cries if you change her nappy anywhere else other than on the couch she is comfortable with. She only likes to sit in one place in the lounge. She will only eat if sitting at ‘her’ seat at the dinner table. And certain things can only be done by mum, and other things only done by dad. Because that is just how it is. And anything else brings tears and heartache like you have ripped her world apart.

She plays the same games over and over. She will only allow things to be done a certain way. In her train set for example there can only be one train on the track at one time. It must do the entire loop of the track and then the next train goes out. And this gets repeated everytime. She could happily watch the same dvd’s for hours. If she plays with her toy kitchen the exact same meal is cooked 25 times or more in the exact same way. Toys often get set up and then just stared at.

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She had the order of those characters memorised and if one was moved she would burst into tears. In nursery her anxiety is demonstrated by sucking on her tongue continually like in this picture:

ImageHer co-ordination and gross skills are behind too. She can’t kick a ball, or climb or balance on one leg. She isn’t able to dress herself and never wants to run anywhere.

And she has sensory issues like so many others with autism too. Clothes have to be soft and fluffy and she gets very upset if she has tights on as the toes just never ‘feel right’. It is the same with shoes. They are too big, too tight, too small, too hard and just not comfortable. And she will become very aggitated if her pyjamas or top do not cover her arms, no matter how warm the weather is.

She is a very fussy eater. The skins of chicken nuggets, the bread covering of fish fingers, sausages without the skin, a little mashed potato, and the chocolate spread licked off of a sandwhich is her main diet. Chocolate buttons for a treat but never any other type of sweets and only orange juice or milk to drink.

And noise just soars her anxieties to record heights. If there is one thing she hates more than anything it is noise. And children running around. And going barefoot. So soft play is like a form of torture for her. Bouncy castles are another fear. And dogs, especially ones that jump up her or bark. Crowds. Intruding on her space. Scary TV programmes with loud animals and people with swords etc. The list goes on. And her anxieties become higher and higher. So understandably she needs a lot of patience and reasurrance.

And she lives by rules that can not be broken. Her brother must sit behind the driver in the car. Dad has to go out the back door of the house first. Her nursery bus MUST come before her brothers school taxi. Mummy must answer the phone, not daddy. If it is a call centre you must still say ‘hello, who is it?’ even when you know as this is the rules.

But you would never know by looking at my beautiful girl. She is sweet, quiet and no trouble to look after. She will look you in the eye when you talk to her and she is academically able. She is loving, caring, funny and brings me untold joy. She adores her brother and has so much patience with him. She teachers him and cuddles into him and talks to him even when he can’t say anything back. She is his carer, his guide, his support and his best friend.

All while having autism herself.

And that makes her one very special girl indeed!

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What do you mean she has autism?

Autism is just part of her. Have patience and understanding with her but never ever underestimate her! This girl is very precious indeed.