Advisory: Dealing with Public Disapproval When You Have a Child with Autism


Randolph, Mass. —If you are the parent of a child with an autism spectrum disorder (ASD), it is inevitable that, at some point, you will encounter someone who does not appear to understand your child’s abilities or needs. That person may give you a disapproving look, say something judgmental, or simply stare.
How should you react? What, if anything, should you do?
“First, remind yourself that disapproving individuals are often strangers who may be unfamiliar with ASD,” says Sarah Helm, M.A., BCBA, Assistant Clinical Director at the May Center School for Autism and Developmental Disabilities in West Springfield, Mass. “Then, remember that doing nothing and walking away could be the best option. However, if you want to address the situation, you could be ready to provide some educational information about common traits and needs of individuals on the autism spectrum.”
Here are some other things you can do to improve your experiences in the community:
Obtain documentation of your child’s disability
At times, children with ASD need special accommodations and/or modifications to their environments. Some people may not be familiar with these types of modifications; others may view them as unfair. In either case, you or your child may want to carry some kind of documentation (ID bracelet or medical card) that verifies she has a disability and that these accommodations or modifications are reasonable and appropriate.
Help your child reduce challenging behaviors
Your child may be the target of disapproval or ridicule in the community if he engages in problematic behaviors that are stigmatizing. Some of these behaviors, such as hand flapping or quiet echolalia (repetition of certain sounds, words, or phrases), are not very serious. Others such a flopping to the ground, acting aggressively, or swearing – are of greater concern.
How can you deal with this? Just as you teach him to dress himself appropriately for a specific occasion or speak differently to different people, it may be helpful to teach him to engage in or not to engage in certain behaviors at a certain time. We recognize that this may not be an easy task, and you may need to enlist the help of a behavior analyst to accomplish your goals.
Set your child up for success
Before you take your child to the movies, ask yourself: Can she sit still? Can she remain relatively quiet? Should she be attending a “reduced stimulation” movie? Then allow her to have appropriate modifications or accommodations, as she needs them.
“Hopefully, over time, increased public awareness and education about ASD will continue to change people’s perceptions and positively impact their reactions and responses to children with special needs out in the community,” says Ms. Helm.
May Institute is an award-winning nonprofit organization with more than 60 years of experience in serving children and adults with autism spectrum disorder and other developmental disabilities, brain injury, and behavioral health needs. The organization provides educational, rehabilitative, and behavioral healthcare services to individuals, as well as training and consultation services to professionals, organizations, and public school systems. At more than 150 service locations across the country, highly trained staff work to create new and more effective ways to meet the special needs of individuals and families across the lifespan. For more information, call 800.778.7601 or visit

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