Carolyn Collins was having one of those days.
It was 2012, and she had just recently learned her then-5-year-old son, Brayden, was diagnosed on the autism spectrum. They were out running errands, and emotions were frayed.
At a large home-improvement store in Kalispell, Brayden had a meltdown. This kind of occurrence is relatively common for children with autism, and can stem from various sources, such as frustration at an inability to communicate or issues with sensory-processing.
It can involve screaming, smashing, throwing, kicking, and other disruptive behaviors, many of which were happening for the Collins family that day.
Instead of waiting it out in the store, Carolyn, already stressed, opted to cut her losses, take her son, and leave. But even that wasn’t enough for some at the store.
“On the way out, this woman followed me, all the way to the doors,” Carolyn said. “She said, ‘If that was my kid, I’d take him home and beat the [crap] out of him.”
At this point in retelling her story, Collins reached for a Kleenex, dabbing at the tears on her face. Even though it happened four years ago, her cheeks still burn red at the memory.
“They think it’s bad parenting,” she continued, stronger. “It’s not. My son was having a bad moment. That’s ignorance.”
April is National Autism Awareness Month, and along with spreading information about the disorder, families and support services are actively challenging the local community to learn more about autism in order to act more compassionately when a situation like the one involving the Collins family occurs.
“It’s about changing the communities we live in to accept and tolerate and include kids of all ability levels,” Carolyn Prussen, executive director at the Child Development Center in Kalispell, said.
According to statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, one in 68 children will be diagnosed on the autism spectrum. The report also noted that less than half of the children with autism had received developmental evaluations by age 3. Autism affects hundreds of children in the Flathead Valley, the development center reported.
Raising awareness is important, because care providers can learn to identify autistic characteristics earlier on in a child’s life. But it’s just one piece of the puzzle, Prussen said. It’s up to the local community to put in some work as well when it comes to inclusion, because children and adults and families with autism can’t integrate without acceptance.
It can be as simple as taking an extra few seconds to think about how you’re reacting to a child having trouble in public, Prussen said, and remembering that children are neurodiverse, meaning they have neurological differences that should be recognized and respected.
As with most social sea changes, these shifts in attitude and reaction must come from the top down.
“We want other parents to take some responsibility to shape their children to be inclusive, rather than exclusive,” Prussen said.
Brayden was diagnosed at age 5, but there were earlier signs, his mother said. A nurse practitioner thought he may have some developmental delays when he was still a baby, but a shift in health care providers quelled any more conversation until he started having trouble in preschool.
Like many families finding out their child is on the spectrum, the Collins were left with a diagnosis and little else to navigate this new landscape. Carolyn said she finally reached out to the Child Development Center when she needed help parsing the myriad behavioral and support services.
At the center, kids with autism learn how to integrate into society, with lessons on social behaviors, self-control, and other aspects of their lives. Last week, Brayden made a house out of clay, and in his hyper-focused state, became easily frustrated with the noise of visitors and his mother chatting at and around him.
He’s learning to navigate situations like this, those that may involve communicating while his senses are overloaded, but it takes time. And, since it was the end of the day, Brayden, like anyone else, was tired and his patience was thin.
Now 9 and in third grade in Whitefish, Brayden has an aide at school to help him adjust, but there are still social pitfalls. Other kids might not understand him, Collins said.
“He’s been invited to two birthday parties in the last three years,” she said.
In past years, he has celebrated his March birthday by inviting all the boys and a few of the girls in his classes. This year was different, Collins said.
“He said, ‘I don’t want a birthday party. I just want to go bowling with my family,'” Collins said. “That’s him saying he has no friends.”
It’s heartbreaking for a parent to go through, but Prussen also noted that many children with autism understand that they are different from many other kids.
“All children with autism have feelings,” Prussen said.
Brayden’s interests fall along many of the same lines as his peers. He’s into basketball, baseball, NASCAR, riding his mountain bike, and he’s especially talented when it comes to chess and cribbage.
He’s a bright, kind boy, with dark brown eyes and wide smile that sneaks out for the camera. He recently decided to make the switch from Vans brand sneakers to Nikes, because that’s what’s cool in his class right now.
In short, Brayden is a kid with an open future, looking for community and acceptance, just like any other kid in the Flathead Valley.
“[The community] needs to be patient and they need to be compassionate and they need to be role models,” Collins said. “We all just want to be loved and have friends.”
As part of Autism Awareness Month, the Child Development Center is holding an acceptance campaign, where contributors can donate items from a wishlist of educational toys, technology, and experiences. For more information, visit www.childdevcenter.org.