Strategies for Dealing with Public Disapproval

Categories: ASD and DD, Child-focused


Parents of children with autism and other developmental disabilities may encounter a number of difficulties in public, one of them being the public itself. If you have a child on the autism spectrum, it is inevitable that, at some point, you will encounter someone who does not appear to understand your child’s disability or needs. They may give you a disapproving look, say something judgmental, or simply stare.

Hopefully, over time, increased public awareness and education about autism and other developmental disabilities will change people’s perceptions and positively impact their reactions and responses to children with special needs. Until that time, there are some things you can do to improve your experiences in the community.

The challenging situations and mindsets of people you may encounter in any public setting can vary tremendously. Therefore, some of the following suggestions may work for you; some may not. It is important to remember that, although some people’s attitudes and words can be hurtful, doing nothing and walking away is the often the best option. Trying to change the attitudes of others in a brief encounter may be a futile undertaking. And always remember that disapproving individuals are just strangers who may not understand your child’s needs and behaviors.

At times, children with autism and other developmental disabilities need special accommodations and/or modifications to their environments. You may encounter some people who view this as unfair. If this is the case, you or your child may want to carry some kind of documentation (ID bracelet, dog tag, medical card) that verifies she has a disability and that these accommodations or modifications are reasonable and appropriate. You could also be ready to provide some educational information about common traits and needs of individuals with special needs.

Your child may be the target of disapproval or ridicule in the community when he engages in problematic behaviors that are stigmatizing. How can you deal with this? Just as you teach your child to dress himself appropriately for a specific occasion, or speak differently to different types of people, it may be helpful to teach him to engage in or not engage in certain behaviors at a certain time.

Does your child have stigmatizing behaviors? If so, is it appropriate for him to engage in them in public? Some stigmatizing behaviors, such as hand flapping or quiet echolalia (repetition of certain sounds, words, or phrases), are less serious. Other stigmatizing behaviors – such a flopping to the ground, acting aggressively, or swearing – are of greater concern. Only your family will know if it feels right for you to try and address and reduce certain of your child’s stigmatizing behaviors.

For kids who may understand, creating a social story and/or rules surrounding different locations may be helpful. For example, if your child refrains from engaging in a given behavior during an outing, you can give her a “reward,” such as a sticker or a special treat. You should outline the rules for earning rewards ahead of time and be sure you stick to them once they have been established.

Try to set your child up for success. Are you asking her to do something that she is not able to do? For example, if you are planning to go to the movies: Can she sit still? Can she remain relatively quiet? Should she be attending a reduced stimulation movie? Allow her to have appropriate modifications or accommodations as she needs them. You can always work on her problem behaviors and graduate to a more inclusive environment as she acquires new skills. It may also be helpful to bring someone along to help manage any difficult situations that may arise.

Dealing with difficult situations and other people’s reactions out in the community may not always be as simple as suggested in this article. Reducing or limiting stigmatizing behaviors may require the guidance of a behavior analyst. Situations surrounding difficult behavior can become complicated. It is usually best to follow a “safety first” approach for your child and then decide if the reactions of others really matter or not.

By Sarah Helm, M.A., LABA, BCBA    

About May Institute
May Institute is a nonprofit organization that is a national leader in the field of applied behavior analysis and evidence-based interventions, serving autistic individuals and individuals with other developmental disabilities, brain injury, neurobehavioral disorders, and other special needs. Founded nearly 70 years ago, we provide a wide range of exceptional educational and rehabilitative services across the lifespan. May Institute operates five schools for children and adolescents with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and other developmental disabilities, including one in West Springfield, and our newest school in Chicopee, Mass. For more information, call 800.778.7601  or visit