My son has done embarrassing things in public. They’re so embarrassing, they’re not really worth bringing up. For the sake of the point I’d like to make, you can just imagine whatever cute but embarrassing thing any of your kids have done as toddlers, then project that to a seventh grader. It’s happened. And it will happen again.
If you spend enough time around special needs families, you see the pattern. Out in public, someone’s kid or adult child, has a meltdown. The people around them react predictably. First they are startled. Then they’re concerned that something is wrong. Then they realize there is a special needs situation and then they all do the same thing. They look to the caretaker for cues on how to feel about the whole thing.
Dad’s, here’s where it either goes really right. Or really wrong. And which way it goes, depends on two things. The first is how we deal with our control issues. We dads like to be in control of things. We like to manage our jobs and our families. We like to believe that we can stop things we don’t want to have happen from happening. Sometimes, we’re right. We can. What our special needs children do when we’re in public is not one of them. And so the first thing we need to remember is that it is neither in our power, nor a reflection of our effectiveness as a father to stop these things sometimes. So go ahead and put down that pack. Because the only thing we can control in these situations, and in any situation really, is how we react. Which brings me to the second thing. It’s a lesson I learned in small unit leadership as a Naval Officer working in special operations. When something goes horribly wrong, act like you expected it. And respond deliberately but with confidence that you’ll be able to solve the problem.
In my old life, that confidence came from the fact that I led teams of elite operators with the best training and support in the world. And we could work our way out of just about anything. In my life as a special needs father, that confidence comes from the fact that I’m a dad. And this is my boy. And whatever he just did is certainly not bigger than my ability to respond effectively to it. So when my son decides to stick his hand in the drink of the stranger sitting in front of us at the ballpark to dig out some ice, and I see the surprise and anger starting to well up in that older gentleman, it’s a pretty easy drill. I calmly pull my son away. Smile at the man and apologize. Maybe say something like, “well I guess we’re all friends now” and then offer to buy him a new drink. I’ve never seen it go wrong. And I’ve never seen anyone respond with anything other than appreciation and even an apology for getting angry if they did. Because you’ve modeled to them, how to behave around your child. Five minutes later, no one remembers it ever happened. No one cares. And no one’s embarrassed.
As is true with most things, people need to be shown how to act and what to expect around special needs kids. And who better to lead them than the merry band of steely eyed leaders that we special needs fathers are.