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Dealing with outsiders

People can be quick to assume ‘naughty’ rather than ‘disabled’. It’s hard for strangers to grasp just how difficult things can be for a child with autism, and if they don’t understand, going out in public can feel like running a gauntlet.

Young boy upset © Photo by Sara Dunn

Everyone’s got the right to go out in the world, use public transport, enjoy public places, and generally be an active member of their community. But where some disabilities are immediately obvious to passers-by – a wheelchair, a white cane, and hearing aids – autism doesn’t show on the outside. A kid with autism looks just like a non-disabled person, and strangers can easily assume that dealing with the world is no harder for them than it is for a neurotypical child. Except that often, it isn’t and being held to those standards can lead to some stressful situations.

Most parents of a child with autism have at least one story about a passer-by telling them to ‘control’ their ‘misbehaving’ child or giving them a judgemental look. People can be quick to assume ‘naughty’ rather than ‘disabled’. It’s hard for strangers to grasp just how difficult things can be for a child with autism, and if they don’t understand, going out in public can feel like running a gauntlet.

What are the problems?

For a child with autism public places have their own particular challenges. All of them boil down to one basic thing: autism combines extra difficulties coping with the world with less understanding of what’s socially appropriate, and the child’s normal behaviour can look very strange. People are not always kind about difference.

Obsessions don’t stop at the front door: children with autism carry them everywhere, and they can be disruptive. A child who loves dogs may run up to pet every dog they see without asking the owner; a child who loves shoelaces may grab at people’s shoes; a child who loves fans may run behind shop counters to stare at them and have a tantrum if prevented. The force of an obsession is difficult for outsiders to understand, and the child is often blamed for ‘bad behaviour’.

Sensory sensitivities can lead to behaviour that outsiders find shocking. A child who sniffs or licks their parents is doing it innocently and the parents understand that; a stranger who gets sniffed or licked is likely to be, at best, startled.

Sensory and eating issues can create public strain. We have a lot of taboos around food, and a child with autism can have trouble observing them. Grabbing food off somebody else’s plate is generally considered an act of bad manners, for instance, though a child with autism may just be trying to communicate something they can’t say. And that’s before we get into issues like pica, where the child eats things like paper or plastic.

People with autism often have problems managing their voices – it’s common to talk too loud, or sound angry or hostile even when you don’t mean to – and aren’t always very subtle about the social niceties. As a result, people can think the boy or girl is being deliberately rude or aggressive when he or she is actually just trying to communicate to the best of his or her abilities.

What’s socially appropriate with a family friend and what’s socially appropriate with a stranger are two different things – but this may be a distinction that children with autism find hard to grasp. Some kids with autism are very friendly and will hug total strangers in an attempt to show their good will … and the strangers aren’t always pleased.

Children with autism often suffer high levels of anxiety. In a place that’s new or busy, their nerves may get quickly overloaded, and an overloaded child can display behaviour that people find challenging. Managing difficult behaviour in public is hard for the parents, and a meltdown can be the end result.

Everyone wants to be seen as a good parent, but parents of a child with autism know that they’re likely to be judged by people who don’t understand the challenges they and their child are facing. Even if the people around you are nice about it, there’s usually a nagging sense of fear that you’ll be blamed. Good parenting of a child with autism can look very different from good parenting of a child without: their needs are different, and meeting them is different too.

All in all, sometimes you can be the most loving and supportive family in the world, and still find that out in public people assume they’re looking at a naughty child, or a terrible parent, or both. The child may or may not be aware of this, but it’s usually painfully obvious to the parents.

Do I explain?

There’s actually quite a debate about whether you should explain to people that your child has autism and that’s why they’re doing whatever they’re doing.

On the ‘pro’ side, it can defuse the assumption that you’re a bad parent. If your son or daughter is having a meltdown it may encourage people to back off and let you deal with it rather than pestering you with unwanted advice. It may also help you deal with the situation quickly so you can focus your attention where it needs to be, on your child.

On the ‘con’ side, you may feel that your son or daughter’s autism is none of anybody’s business and you shouldn’t have to give a medical history to every person who shows an interest. You might also feel that you’ve got your hands full and you aren’t in the mood to get into it– especially if it means talking about your son or daughter over his or her head. Children with autism don’t always seem to be listening, but that doesn’t mean they won’t take in what you say.

In the end, it’s up to you. You may feel different on different days; whatever you decide, just remember that your child’s wellbeing and your own should be the focus here, so go with whatever best supports that.

Are there any resources which I can use in these situations?

The National Autistic Society prints cards you can hand out, reading ‘This person has autism’, so you could order some for emergencies (or get your own personal ones printed).

When it comes to coping with your own feelings as a parent, sadly there really isn’t as much official material out there as there should be. Parenting a child with autism can be a challenge, and one that doesn’t always meet with full recognition. There are a few links to personal accounts that you might find helpful, though – if for no other reason, then because they show that everyone has their own take on the situation and there’s no ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ answer: your decision will be just as valid as anyone else’s.

There’s also advice and parental support on our online community, Talk about Autism.

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