What I learned from a stranger one summer’s day in a Walmart parking lot still sticks with me six years later.
I had on occasion witnessed parents with children having meltdowns out in public and thought I’m glad that’s not me. I would try not to look and give them some privacy to help their child. I would move on with my shopping, happy my three children were behaving, or at least not throwing a “tantrum.”
Then I had my fourth child. With all the love and joy he brought me, also came challenges. By the age of 2 he had been diagnosed with sensory processing disorder and autism spectrum disorder. I became the parent of the child having meltdowns.
When my son was 4 years old, I had to take him with me to Walmart one day. I knew I was pushing my luck. We had just come from the dentist, which for any 4-year-old kid can be difficult but for a child on the spectrum, it is a lot of sensory processing to have to deal with. My son had done OK. We had made it through the dentist appointment. Just one more stop at Walmart, then we would be home.
Things did not go as planned. My son started to have a meltdown in the checkout line. Normally if this happened I would have made a quick exit from the store and gone back another time. But I couldn’t do that today. My husband was picking up my daughter from camp six hours away. She had broken her foot badly, was in a non-weight bearing cast with crutches, and the cast was not waterproof. The one thing my daughter really wanted to do the minute she got home was shower, and it was my job to get the supplies. I needed to get her a chair that could fit in our shower and plastic and tape to cover the cast.
I endured the looks of disapproving people as I slowly inched up in line as my son was on the floor between me and the shopping cart screaming at the top of his lungs. I made it through the checkout and was able to pick up my son and get out the door. The screaming and flailing continued as I tried to walk to my car. His shoe came off at some point, and I left it in the middle of the road. I just had to get him in his car seat.
My son had Herculean strength during this meltdown. His little body was arching and twisting, and as hard as I tried to calm him and just get him buckled in the car seat, I couldn’t do it. He was screaming, and I was struggling, minivan door wide open for all to see.
That’s when I saw this women coming towards me from across the parking lot. I was sure she was going to tell me she had called the police or at least tell me what a horrible mom I was. But instead she simply asked if she could help me. As I felt the tears well up in my eyes I said yes.
It took the two of us five minutes to get my son buckled in the car seat. As we were struggling together, she asked so politely if my son was on the spectrum. I replied, “Yes.” She told me how she too has two boys on the spectrum. She had been in another checkout line, but had witnessed the meltdown in the store. She told me a man behind her in line had said, “What that kid needs is a good spanking.” She told me it made her so mad that she turned and told the man, “ You have no right to judge them. That boy could have issues you don’t know about.”
I was thinking to myself, Wow not only is this women helping me, but she is defending me! She continued on to say that she told her husband, who was waiting in their car with her two boys, that she was going to come over and help me because she could just tell my son was on the spectrum and that I was going to need help.
After we had secured my son in his car seat, she helped put my items in the back of my car as I went to retrieve my son’s shoe. She ran back to her car and came back to my car with her name and phone number. She told me to call her if I ever wanted to get together with her sons. I thanked her profusely, and we went our separate ways.
She became “Melissa-Walmart” in my address book. We met a few weeks later at a playground and laughed as I told her I’d still be in the Walmart parking lot if she hadn’t come over to help me. Her kindness that summer day has stayed with me.
I learned that for all the hurtful looks and comments I would get over the years, there were also people out there who understood the challenges we faced. For the times I saw other parents with a child melting down and I just looked the other way, I could do better. I, too, could ask if they needed help. Empathy and compassion can go a long way for everyone because you just never know what someone is going through till you have walked in their shoes — especially the shoes that end up in the middle of the road.
Originally published on The Mighty.