Do's And Don'ts When Witnessing A Disabled Child Having A Meltdown - The Mobility Resource

Do’s And Don’ts When Witnessing A Disabled Child Having A Meltdown

November 19, 2013


Cerebral palsy, autism, cognitive disabilities, speech and language difficulties, the list could go on.  These disabilities may not be as visible to onlookers as others.

These less visible disabilities have some unique challenges. The biggest impasse can be the expectations that others have towards those affected by them and the unrealistic assumptions people sometimes make.

The Challenges They Face

Many children affected by these disabilities have behavioral, cognitive  and motor challenges.  Meltdowns and sensory complications are a part of daily life for many families.

Often people out in the community are less accepting of these children, because the origin for the difficult behaviors is not always obvious.

Our family has tried every behavior management method recommended by the experts.  While our son’s behavior has improved, challenges do continue to rear their nasty heads. There are some triggers, such as homework and plans that change at the last minute, but at other times meltdowns seem to crop up out of nowhere.

It wasn’t long ago that three-hour meltdowns, without an apparent trigger, were a typical occurrence in our home, or even worse in the community.  I recall a particular meltdown while we were shopping.  As I was struggling to control my child I couldn’t help but over hear the people in the next aisle.  They were frankly discussing my child’s behavior and critiquing my poor parenting skills.  Bashing me and my child as if the half-wall of sale items between us was sound proof.  I was wishing for a sign that read, “My son had a brain injury; we will excuse your behavior should you injure your brain, so please excuse his.”  But no such sign appeared, and I left that store feeling shamed by those destructive words.

Fast forward six years, and things had improved significantly from those darker days. Then out of nowhere, a new stroke hit and we saw an instant, significant regression in emotional regulation difficulties.  We are still working our way back from that stroke almost two years ago. With healing and much patience, we will get there in due time.

Managing an 8 yr. old child during a meltdown is even more difficult than a toddler or preschooler, and the looks are even crueler than they used to be.

Besides the behavioral challenges, many of these children process information differently than their peers.  This can also  be difficult for people to understand and take seriously, since these kids often look so typical, the expectation is that they can think and process information in the same way as other children.

My son is bright but has very slow processing speed. He can understand the work, but it will take him longer to think through problems and conceptualize information than most kids in his class.  When you ask him a question, he needs a few extra moments to respond.  You can’t mistake his initial silence for ignorance.

After some time, when he has formulated a response, he may interrupt what everyone else has moved on to in order to share it.  In fact anytime he gets a flow of information he feels he needs to share, he may interrupt you to get it out.  A rude child, impulsive and demanding, you might assume.  In reality, he knows he will forget that thought almost as soon as it comes into his head.

He knows that the window to get it out is short and if he waits for an appropriate time to chime in, the thought will be lost.

When the karate instructor is talking to the group, my son is working incredibly hard to process the information, convince his body to cooperate and perform the moves.  He spends most of the class a few moves behind, constantly trying to keep up.  Any extra encouragement or reminders from the well-intentioned instructors means more information to process.

When my son is doing something and we need to tell him to stop, it’s usually too late by the time he processes what’s being said to him.  He is constantly getting sniped at for not listening; in reality, he just didn’t process the information in time to respond.  This causes an unbelievable amount of frustration for him, and it’s pretty frustrating for us too.  There are times we miss the boat and get angry with him for behaviors outside of his control.  There are also times when extended family, friends, or coworkers assume he’s simply being obstinate when he doesn’t respond immediately.  Being judged a bad parent by strangers is a miserable  moment, but the same judgment from people you care about stings far worse.  Partly because we want so badly for them to understand.


There are a few things you should keep in mind the next time you see a child misbehaving. Ask yourself these questions before making snap judgments.

    1. Is it a rude child or a bright child who wants to tell you what they know before they forget?
    2. Is it a child who doesn’t know the answer, or a child who needs a little more processing time?
    3. Is it a spoiled brat or a child on sensory overload?”
    4. Are there alternative reasons for behavior – this may help you be more patient and supportive.
    5. When you see that mom struggling with her child who is clearly in overload mode, smile at her. Use that smile that says, “I feel your pain and I know you’re doing the best you can!” Or even better, smile and say “You’re doing a great job. I hope tomorrow’s a  better day for you guys!”


When you see a child struggling to understand your instructions or questions, or otherwise having a difficult time, please keep these simple things in mind.

    1. Don’t speak louder – they are having processing issues not hearing ones.   Speaking louder, even to a deaf person, never helps anyway because it’s not a natural way of speaking
    2. Don’t repeat yourself several times.  Again, when a person is trying to process information in their head they need a moment.  Giving them more words to process interrupts their flow of thinking and they have to start again.
    3. Don’t judge.  It doesn’t matter why that child is having a meltdown in Target. No amount of judgment and negativity from strangers is going to help the child or the parent.
    4. Don’t roll your eyes.
    5. Don’t say nasty things to your friends.
    6. Don’t make erroneous assumptions about the situation.
    7. Just don’t be a jerk!
    1. Remember, however frustrated you are trying to get this message across, that child is ten times as frustrated as they try to sift through all the messages bouncing around their heads.
    2. Patience, kindness and respect go a long way in dealing with all people, regardless of disability or not.

John Watson once said: “Be kinder than necessary because everyone you meet is fighting some kind of battle.” Imagine what a wonderful world we would live in if everyone we met followed that advice? Let the wonderful start with you!

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