Analysis of an Autism Parenting Fail

*Not* from the team photo shoot.
Yesterday was Leo's soccer team's photo day, but Leo ended up not participating in that photo shoot. Instead, we ended up leaving -- with me in tears, and Leo frantically upset. All due to bad decisions or not being observant enough on my part, and so all of which could all could have been avoided. Let me wallow in hindsight and tell you why.

1) Leo hasn't been sleeping well lately, often getting up at 3 AM then staying awake all day until his usual bedtime. This means both he and we (Seymour and I alternate hanging out with Leo in the mornings) are sleep-deprived and so not at our best, decision-making-wise. I should have put more thought into whether Leo would be able to tolerate an activity as chaotic and demanding as a team photo shoot.

2) Leo usually has a Sunday respite session with Therapist V, his former linebacker best buddy ever (V is strong enough to pick Leo up and sling our boy over his shoulders; Leo adores roughhousing), but yesterday their session was cancelled due to matters beyond anyone's control. So that made things harder for Leo as well -- the reliable, soothing, predictable structure of his Sunday was doubly compromised, first by V's absence, then by the photo shoot.

3) Putting on his uniform after already playing on Saturday and then not going to the usual soccer field (the shoot took place at a park nearby) was very confusing, and possibly a trigger for Leo. I should have taken more time, made more materials, explained better what the photo shoot was about, how it was going to be different from a game day. But, because I was tired, I didn't take the time to prepare him sufficiently. That is on me.

4) Anything scheduled during lunch is bad. Leo lives for lunch. Since he'd been up so long, he'd already had two breakfasts by the time we left for the photo shoot -- one breakfast rather late in the morning -- and I figured I could push Leo's lunch back accordingly. Bad idea. Lunch is at noon, no matter how many breakfasts a boy has had. That lack-of-lunch was the breaking point for Leo. I understand this now.

It was only after we'd already arrived at the park and Leo started making his displeasure known (slapping the picnic tables, yelling) that I realized my son was approaching a perfect storm of Hell No. But, as he's also maturing, I tried to encourage him to power through, to see if he could take a picture anyhow.

No. He was having none of it, and became increasingly vocally and physically agitated. I brought out various things that usually calm him -- iPad, fruit leathers, music -- but he was very much All Done.
Then one of the other parents then told him he needed to calm down and behave, which I get from an It Takes a Village perspective but which is of absolutely no use with mid-meltdown autistic kids like Leo. That's the point at which I lost it.

I already knew I'd failed Leo, was already berating myself for setting him up to fail in public -- but having a semi-stranger then judge him for being out of control was more than I could take (if you don't know me IRL, even small-scale in-person confrontations makes me cry, unless I'm righteously furious). I put on my sunglasses to cover my streaming eyes, told the coach we were leaving, and we left.

We hit In-N-Out on the way home, shared French fries and a shake, and went home. Leo changed his clothes and headed straight into our pool. And then happiness reigned. His day had normalized. He was in control. Lunch had happened. Things were as they should be.

I'm writing this down because I think it's important to show lessons learned in [autism] parenting, even if they make me look bad. Because even though I know and understand so much of what it takes to help Leo get through his day, I need to stay mindful of when and how things can be harder for him. Being off schedule in any way is confusing and stressful, as is sleep deprivation. And when I'm feeling stressed or overwhelmed, that is when I need to be extra-vigilant about ensuring that Leo has proper supports. He depends on me. As capable as he has become, and as well as he has been doing in so many stressful scenarios, it is my job to smooth the path in front of him. He deserves better than being dragged into a public meltdown.

He failed because I failed. And it made us both miserable. I wish I hadn't had to re-learn what I already know, and at my son's expense, but I hope our lesson can help other folks avoid such clusterfucks.

Leo, I love you, and I'm so sorry.


The only bright spot in the morning: I got to see and hug my dear friend MB, whom I've not seen in person for years. xo, Lady.


  1. Tired is just bad all around, period. Poor all of you. I won't say how burning stupid it usually is to tell ANY upset human being to calm down. Yeah, that one works every time. (imagine massive eyeroll here)

    ETA: This captcha is kicking my ass.

  2. I hate that you are all going through the exhaustion and its attendant dysregulation. We're going through some similar stuff. Not sure if I was reading into your words...please don't wear the hair shirt too long. You are human and Leo's day got turned around really fast. THAT was good decision making.

    And the fact that you didn't rip the other parent a new one? Fortitude, my dear. IMMENSE fortitude. xo

  3. I had a similar situation a couple of weeks ago :-/ I took the boys to my alma mater for a tailgate party. I'd packed headphones in case the noise was an issue for M. I totally forgot about the bathrooms though! M was doing a good job with learning to use the toilet and I didn't prep him for how the bathrooms might be different. We walked into the bathroom at the dining hall and he completely. lost. it because there were the hand dryers that you stick your hand in, instead of paper towel machines or quiet hand dryers. I was able to get him into diapers but a woman who walked in decided it would be helpful to say "little boy, you need to hurry up because the rest of us have to use the bathroom!" I lost my cool and chewed her out. Luckily we were able to salvage the day but I felt awful and stupid for not being prepared enough.

    So, all that to say you are not alone. You were able to save the day. Be gentle with yourself.

  4. The other parent has a very different, more authoritarian parenting style than mine, and a very different kid. (The team is for kids with disabilities, not autism.) I am just an instant-wilter. I doubt she understood how her comment would affect me, or how unhelpful it was for Leo.

    Tired sucks. Different is bad. I'm glad to hear from you all, and hope that Emily encounters only friendly Captchas from here on out, Beth & her team find regulation, & Maya's crew now has most bathroom variations figured out. xo

  5. (((((SHANNON))))) we are always our own worst critics, aren't we? I hope you're able to get some sleep.

  6. My god, you have some major self control! I've watched as my "super special" kid has been on the receiving end of another parent's wrath (W is shy and will physically and mentally shut down if anyone pushes her too far) and I almost went full out Mama Bear on that poor woman. You DO NOT tell my kid how to behave - I'm her mom...that's MY job. Grrrrr...

    You have the patience of a super angel.


  7. Thanks Jill. Leo slept really well last night, he was a much happier kid in general today for it.

    @Anne, Leo is a bit different than your W, the other parent's comment didn't even register with him because he was too mad to pay her any mind. I'm the one who took it badly, not him.

    I actually don't really mind if other folks tell my kids to behave, if they do so appropriately -- but this was inappropriate for Leo and autistic kids like him, though I don't know if the other parent realized this.

  8. Anonymous11:44 AM

    "You are human and Leo's day got turned around really fast. THAT was good decision making."


    And, I'm personally relieved to see that you are being so generous about the other parent's mistake. I could be that person, who tries to use the parenting that works with my kids inappropriately with another kid. I've trained myself to be more cautious as I've realized how different individual children are, but it's sometimes hard to find the line between trying to help and making things worse. Since I believe in the village, I don't want to take the way out of just ignoring the situation (though letting the parent handle it if they're there is a good first step).

  9. Anonymous11:49 AM

    PS: I'm a stranger on the internet, but the tenor of this post (combined with your previous post about depression), "He failed because I failed" worried me just a little bit.

    I'm not in a position to offer to help (i.e. the stranger thing, and I live in a different city). But, I know you have support, so it's not saying the impossible to remind you to take care of yourself (and, to your friends -- take care of Squid).


  10. (zb), thanks. I'm a believer in the village. And I'm good in general, really -- but I don't like to talk about my negative feelings IRL and so use this space to process them. Because of that they might appear to have more weight than they actually do day-to-day.

  11. Nope -- Sorry, Shannon, you didn't fail. As soon as you figured out there was a problem, you acted to fix it. You didn't make the problem bigger by yelling at someone who (though socially clumsy) was probably trying to help. You didn't give up and let chaos reign. You didn't take your frustrations out on your child. You did what you needed to do to take care of your child, even though you were exhausted and upset. The only failing I can see is you berating yourself for being less than perfect, but I can't fault you for it because I think it comes with motherhood. You know -- vericose veins, check; sleep deprivation, check; guilt complex, double check. :)

  12. Anonymous6:55 AM

    Have you looked into using Melatonin before bed time? It's natural, can be found in health food stores. Several families in our Autism Support Group do use it. It has helped my son sleep better. There are plenty of studies to look up on google,if you'd like.

  13. I know it feels like it, but this is NOT a fail. I have 3 autistic daughters and am autistic myself. Sometimes, I need to do things that put my girls or me in situations we'd rather not be in. And sometimes, they surprise me. Sometimes, when I am certain hell will break loose because the night was a disaster, the morning was full of meltdowns , and everything is off....we've gone to their special needs gymnastic class and they magically are able to enjoy themselves. It happens. And if I don't try and instead choose to stay home, I could be holding them back from a great experience. You went. You tried. It didn't work out. I've been there. But you are awesome for trying. You handled the situation. I'm sorry it didn't work out. I've been there. Many times.

  14. I have to register my concern at the tone as well. In our attempt to understand that our children's meltdowns are not their fault and to help set them up for success, it can be easy to place blame on ourselves instead. It sounds to me like you made reasonable decisions as to why you thought Leo would handle this, and the fact that he couldn't is no ones fault. If you didn't ask him to stretch sometimes you would never find out if he had grown. If you ask him to stretch you will sometimes make mistakes.

  15. I Just want to say Thank you for sharing your story, and for making me feel less crazy. Sometimes I wonder if other mothers are experiencing the same things. Your story echo's some of my/our days.
    We're learning from each other everyday.


Respectful disagreement encouraged.