It had been raining for days. There were only a few places that we could visit without a meltdown and all but one of those was outside.
We were low on the six foods my son would eat so we prepared ourselves for the supermarket. Photograph, PECS schedule and shopping list, emergency supplies etc. He had his own little shopping trolley and, once shown the photo of the supermarket, he was happy to get into the car and go. It was his favourite route, the one he knew off by heart. The right place to go in the car.
We made our way over to the trolleys. They snaked out from under their shelter, the first ten feet of them exposed to the elements and therefore dripping with water. I pulled one out. One look at it was enough. A full-blown meltdown. Screaming, crying, trying desperately to get away. They were different, wrong, in fact so wrong that he felt it in the depths of his soul. If something like that could happen to a trolley, who knows what else could happen? He started attacking his trolley, crashing it onto the pavement, trying to hurt it. With one hand on the big trolley, I caught him with the other hand and pulled him inside, knowing that if I could just dry the trolley, all would be well. We stumbled towards the Customer Service desk in the hope that someone would help. Two queues of people stood next to each other, waiting to buy their cigarettes and lottery tickets. As I desperately approached the desk with a screaming, terrified, non-verbal toddler and his deadly weapon/toy trolley in one hand and a dripping wet supermarket trolley in the other, the two lines shot apart to make space for our crisis. It was like the parting of the Dead Sea. The new space meant that my boy could swing round and start ramming the desk with my big trolley, desperately trying to get it, and it’s horrible strangeness, away from him.
Every single person in the queues turned their backs. I tried to catch the eye of the woman behind the desk but she was too busy exchanging superior looks with a middle-aged man in a flat cap. You know the looks, the ones that scream revulsion and disapproval. The ones that say that the parent is hopeless, that they shouldn’t be allowed in the shop, that the spoilt child just needs a good hiding.
‘I need to dry the trolley’ I said. ‘Please can you help me. I just need to dry the trolley’.
‘Please, haven’t you got paper towel somewhere?’ ‘If I can dry the trolley, all this will stop’. ‘Please help me’. I was shouting.
Still nothing. The noise was unbearable. I’d dropped my handbag and the contents rolled out across the floor. I’d thrown down the empty shopping bags and managed to push away the toy trolley. The large metal trolley was being rammed into the desk. Our circle of destruction was about 8ft across. All backs still turned towards us. I was trying to soothe him, ‘It’s Ok, it is only rain, we will dry it and it will be OK, someone will help us, it’s OK, it’s OK, it’s OK. I sounded pathetic, useless, a crap parent.
The Woman finished exchanging haughty looks with Flat Cap Man and, sighing heavily and with an exaggerated apology to the person next in the queue, strode around to the other side of the desk.
‘I just need to dry the trolley, please, just some of that blue paper towel you always have, PLEASE’, ramming, shouting, screaming, crying, terrified child, helpless mother, revolting in our un-British display of embarrassingly extreme behaviour.
Levelling me with a look of pure disgust she stalked off, saying nothing. I could see, from behind the backs of silent lottery queue, her dragging, like an over-enthusiastic bell-ringer, great lengths of paper towel from a secret holder inexplicably concealed between the double entrance doors. Back she came, holding a mass of blue paper towel, easily 20 feet in length, and threw it angrily into my trolley.
‘IT’S OVER THERE NEXT TIME YOU NEED IT’ she yelled, spinning on her heal and returning to her station in triumph. Flushed with satisfaction she shot another exaggerated look of apology to the next in line and resumed her Customer Service role for the deserving few.
Within seconds I had dried the trolley. The meltdown quickly fizzled out and my boy, despite streaming eyes and shortness of breath, took hold of his toy trolley and calmly jogged off in order to start his usual and unwavering route around the aisles.
What to do? I wanted to scream at her, shout how she had made me feel. How easily she could have helped. I wanted to put my boy straight back into the car, return later with a flame thrower and torch the place. That, or a stiff letter to the Manager (probably less felonious but unarguably unsatisfactory…) To tell everyone whose backs were turned that if just one of them had been a decent human being and had stepped forward to help, the whole thing would have been over more quickly and less painfully. I wanted to run out of there and never come back. But my boy was off, about his business, ready to collect the items on his list and I was going to have to suck it up and get on with it. I trudged round the supermarket tearful and over-whelmed with resentment and shame. I didn’t go out for days after that. Because what was the bloody point? Meltdowns at home instead please, minus the audience.
It doesn’t take much to help a situation like that. All it needed was for someone to step forward and say ‘Tell me how to help’. I would have and by God I would have been grateful. It is possible that I might have also suggested that they go and punch The Woman and Flat Cap Man in the face but I would have understood if they had declined. Eventually.
I know this because one day someone did help. Another supermarket incident but this time, in the car park. A thoughtless prick had parked so close to my car that it was impossible to open the door next to the car seat. My son absolutely could not enter the car by any other door without a catastrophic and self-injurious meltdown. We waited and waited and waited. After half an hour, in desperation, I stopped a woman who was going into the shop and asked if she could just hold my son’s hand while I reversed out. She did. She happily stood on the pavement, chatting away to my boy, reassuring him that he was going to be able to get into the car and go home. She didn’t ask me why he couldn’t just use another door, she just did what I asked her to do and went quietly away about her business. Not all heroes wear capes. Not all people are decent. Be the person that understands and acts. You will be make more difference to a person in need than you can possibly imagine.
Martha Smith Parent Advocate is a supportive blog focusing on the challenges and wins of parenting children with additional needs. Based in Hampshire Martha runs workshops for schools and other education providers in Surrey, London & Hampshire on how to encourage children with additional needs to thrive in education.