A Stranger Tapped Me On The Shoulder While My Son Was Melting Down

Even my non-verbal son’s favorite outings start off with some convincing. At home, Lucas likes to swipe away at his iPad. Putting that down and taking some steps into the great outdoors requires work on my part.

The pool in my community is one such event. My boy loves it. I know he does. We have taken pictures there and spent way more time than originally intended. Watching him splash, laugh, and smile is enough to make me want to splash, laugh, and smile. It’s a wonderful place that he loves.

A wonderful place I have to battle him to go to.

This was the case last week when we put on our bathing suits and started the march over. From the second he squeezed into his shoes, he was already giving me the slow-roar whine.


That e and multiple h’s played out from my front door, down the pathway, past the parking lot, and into the swimming area. When we eventually arrived, the main pool was full of people, but the toddler pool was empty. Suddenly the whine was gone as he jumped in…with both his sneakers on.

Getting him to lift his feet up was a challenge because he assumed I was trying to pull him out. So the whine returned and I found myself in a watery battle with a gigantic ten year old to get his shoes off. He screamed like he was being mugged and I could feel the distant stares from the adjacent pool burning a hole through my watery hellscape.

Once I popped his kicks off, all was ok for a brief while. He squinted his eyes and flopped around the two feet of water. It wasn’t that he couldn’t hold his own in a big pool. He likes the big pool. The issue that landed us here was that with a big pool full of strangers and an empty toddler pool full of nothing but water, it seemed more feasible to put him in there. Unless, of course,….

Toddlers showed up.

Two of them rolled up in a double stroller and, as soon as they did, my simmering special needs parenting anxiety kicked in. I leaned over to Lucas and said, “OK, buddy. There are real babies here. We have to go in the big pool.”

Receptive language be damned, moments like this cause grave miscommunication between me and my boy. In his mind, my ensuing attempts to take him from the baby pool was to bring him home. I kept pointing to the big pool and doing all the umpire signals we’ve come to share that help him understand. But he was having none of it. Between his overall grumpiness that day and his paranoia about being taken from what he loved, he was steadfast in his refusal.

The meltdown was harsh. I was able to lead him up one step before he pulled his way back in, with an intense scream. Eventually, I managed to bring him to the concrete, where he plopped down firmly and placed one foot back in the water in an act of defiance. He cried and I debated my next move. As I did, I sat beside him, rubbed his back, and spoke calmly.

We’re not leaving. We’re going to the other pool. Look. See? Big boy pool. Me and you. We’re big boys. We go there.

Still nothing but a low simmering whine and a sword in the stone style sit-down. So, I gathered all of our belongings, left him there, and put them next to the big pool. He remained until I returned.

Then, in a moment that made me glad my post-quintuple bypass life forces me to exercise so much at 44, took both his hands, leaned back, and slingshot his massive body up to his feet. He let out a surprised cry of defeat as I put one arm around him and lead him, in tears, to the other pool. Once we got there, he cried intensely until he started to descend the stairs into the shallow end. As soon as he did, he was happy again. Me? I was ready to drown myself.


Surrounded by strangers, I knew I had to keep a close eye on him to make sure he didn’t knock into people. I was so focused on him that I barely heard someone repeating, “My friend? Excuse me. My friend?”

Then I felt the tap on my shoulder.

As any special needs parent in my position will tell you, the second between that tap on the shoulder from a stranger and your reply is the longest second of your life. Your mind begins scrolling through all the possible statements that can follow.

Excuse me, did you have him vaccinated?

Excuse me, what is wrong with him?

Excuse me, my nephew has autism.

Excuse me, your neck is bleeding.

There were a ton of possible “excuse me” follow-ups around the corner. Each one came with its own set of responses ranging from happy to violent. What was about to happen? I had no idea. The day was already years long and I was embarrassed by his meltdown among my neighbors.

I turned to the older man, floating beside me, to hear what he had to say.

I just wanted to tell you that you’re an excellent father.

Full honesty – I wasn’t prepared for that. If you had given me a pile of possibilities, this wouldn’t have been in the top 40. I didn’t feel like an excellent father and had no inclination that those watching could have gotten that from the scene before them. It was the exact thing I needed to hear at the exact right moment. Even when my boy had another meltdown when we had to go home, everyone was sweet and said goodbye to us both.

When we got back,  I plopped Lucas in the tub, and carried on one of our long-running one-sided conversations.

Did you hear that? Everyone was so nice to us. They thought you were a good boy. Actually, they didn’t. They said I was a good dad, though. That made me happy. I needed that today. Maybe next time, you can show them what a good kid you can be too. No more crying, OK?

With that, he climbed in, splashed, and laughed the chlorine off his body. Knowing he had fun had made it all worth it. Hearing those positive words from a stranger let me know that I had handled it right. Despite how hard it was, we had a great day.




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