Natalie had been having a particularly bad day with her son. When a strange man appeared on the pier her first instinct was to tense up a little.
She was accustomed to strangers not understanding Rudy and his antics. Natalie expected the stares and judgmental looks she usually got. Instead, what this stranger did stunned her completely.
Natalie Fernando’s greatest joy was being a mother. When her son, Rudy Fernando, was born, she was as ecstatic as any mother.
Her little boy was here and more beautiful than she could have ever imagined. However, as he grew, her “little Roo”, began to show signs that he was different.
All parents know that children go through demanding phases that present challenges in their toddler years. We’ve all heard of the “terrible twos” and the resultant tantrums that come with it.
These difficult periods usually also coincide with the developmental milestones that temper these moments with overloads of cuteness. However, when Rudy’s continuous tantrums weren’t accompanied by ordinary milestones, Natalie grew concerned.
Kids all develop at different rates but there are usually similarities between the age groups when certain behaviors are expected to start subsiding.
When Rudy’s tantrums weren’t easing up, Natalie knew her son faced unique challenges. Most parents are naturally more tolerant of their kids’ behavior but, unfortunately, strangers are generally less understanding.
It wasn’t long before Natalie learned that Rudy’s extra challenges were not by chance. Soon, her “little Roo” was diagnosed with a form of autism.
A native of Essex, Natalie was well informed enough to understand that autism did not mean what many people thought. It simply meant that Rudy was different and needed special care.
Many parents of autistic children often struggle as kids on the spectrum present with difficult behaviors and require added attention. Unfortunately, the extra pressure this places on a parent isn’t always handled appropriately.
Natalie’s experiences taught her that this only added to the negative stereotypes and stigma that autistic children faced. However, Natalie was no ordinary mom and sprang into action to combat this problem.
Rather than shrink from the challenges of raising a child on the spectrum or allowing it to overwhelm her, Natalie made it her mission to change people’s perceptions.
As a blogger, ASD Advocate Counselor, and Wellness Coach, Natalie began creating support structures for other families that faced these struggles. Despite all her efforts, this didn’t mean that never struggled herself.
As much as Natalie was far more adept than most at handling Rudy’s tantrums and difficult behaviors, these grew more challenging whenever they were out in public.
The average stranger doesn’t realize that an autistic child’s screaming, yelling, moaning, or tantrums are not their fault. To others, it was just bad behavior and most strangers usually reacted with judgment and dirty looks during these moments.
One fateful day, Natalie was out with Rudy for a walk on the Southend-On-Sea pier. The air was salty, and the wind brisk. Whatever riled up Rudy that day, the result was a familiar tantrum.
Aside from the screaming and fussing, Rudy lay down on the ground and refused to get up. The commotion was already drawing stares from other people on the pier. Natalie knew if she couldn’t calm him, it could be hours before he’d be ok again.
Natalie tried all of her usual soothing techniques to try and get Rudy up again. Many people were beginning to stare now. Natalie could feel their judgment on her. She was accustomed to strangers not fully understanding the situation.
This never made her feel any less conscious of people’s dirty looks and muttering though. Suddenly, she noticed a man who was jogging by making a beeline toward Rudy and she grew anxious.
The man was dressed in an orange and black jogging suit. His face seemed pleasant enough but the way he walked toward them with such purpose worried Natalie.
He stopped near Rudy on the ground and watched him curiously for a moment. When Natalie tried to explain what was going on, the stranger didn’t seem to fully understand. In an instant, the stranger made an unexpected movement and Natalie was shocked by what he did.
Natalie half expected the stranger to get angry or say something nasty or cynical. Instead, to her surprise, he got down on the ground and laid down next to Rudy, and spoke to him soothingly.
This seemed to take Rudy by surprise too. As he watched the brightly colored man lying next to him, Natalie saw confusion cross her son’s face. Then, something even more unexpected happened.
Natalie feverishly tried explaining why Rudy was on the ground. The man was unfazed at all and said, “Oh well, if he won’t get up I’ll just lie down next to him so he feels more comfortable.” To Natalie’s utter surprise, the odd actions of the man actually had a positive effect.
Perhaps it was his kind smile or soothing voice. Whatever it was about him, Natalie considered him “a hero” because his kind actions actually calmed Rudy down and even made him smile and laugh.
Natalie Fernando had spent many years educating others to be more considerate to autistic persons. Now, a stranger had shown her how others sometimes perceived life on the spectrum. The stranger later introduced himself as Ian Shelley.
Ian taught Natalie that even if a person didn’t fully understand the action of an autistic child, that didn’t have to stop them from caring in their own way. After thanking Ian, Natalie knew there was one more thing she had to do.
Ian had not just shown kindness and compassion but unwittingly saved Natalie from having to spend hours trying to calm her “little Roo” down. Rudy seemed to immediately like Ian almost as if he could sense the childlike sincerity he possessed.
Making sure she got some good pictures of the pair, Natalie later added the story to her awareness blog. The reaction to Ian and his actions was overwhelming. Natalie never expected her post to blow up like it did.
Natalie’s post about what had happened racked up more than 50,000 likes in just a few days. Now, it has been liked more than 97,000 times! It has also accumulated nearly 7,000 comments and 34,000 shares.
All the comments were overwhelmingly positive – everyone’s heart was lifted when they saw that such kindness from strangers does exist. So, just what did Natalie write?
“This man, a total stranger saved me today from either a meltdown lasting up to an hour or more…”
Natalie wrote in her now-viral Facebook post. “…or the alternative which is usually a bit of a beating from my boy who totally loses himself when he has a meltdown and can become very aggressive.”
“This man, a total stranger, was my hero this morning and after laying with Roo then walked Rudy and I all the way back to our car,” Natalie’s long Facebook post continued.
“I wish there were more of this man around and I am beyond thankful.” But there was still a lot more she wanted to say.
Natalie’s post – which was more than four hundred words long – continued to explain how Rudy’s behavior was drawing “tutting and staring” from the other people on the pier before the “hero” had swooped in.
One woman with a two-year-old toddler in a pram had even gone as far as to frown at her in disapproval. The baby in the pram was trying to sleep, but Rudy’s wailing was making it impossible. Of course, Natalie was absololutely mortified.
“My son loves to walk, but he hates to turn around and walk back, we usually try to walk in a circuit to avoid this but on his favorite walk with the boats we have no choice but to turn back,” Natalie continued.
“This will often lead to a meltdown, one which I can normally handle but on the back of 2 weeks out of school today was too much for him and me.”
Because children with autism struggle to communicate their wants, needs, and feelings in socially acceptable ways, they are prone to having temper tantrums when they are frightened, anxious, stressed, or overwhelmed.
While other children are in control of their tantrums, children on the spectrum are not. In Rudy’s case, not wanting to make the walk back because it signaled the end of his time on the seafront combined with sensory overload triggered a complete meltdown.
Rudy’s meltdown was a reaction to being overwhelmed and he had no control over it. Natalie knew from experience that techniques used to quell other children’s tantrums weren’t going to work on Rudy.
She only had one choice: endure the embarrassment and disapproval from the other people on the pier and pray that Rudy screeched himself into exhaustion.
“This man, my hero this morning saw my son on the floor and like any other person would assume that he was having a tantrum, he asked my little Roo what his name was,” Natalie’s post continued.
“And when I explained he didn’t really understand and that he is autistic and has a host of other challenges… he said, that’s cool I’ll lay down with him… I am so thankful to this chap Ian, I will not forget his kindness.”
“It’s said a lot at the moment, “in a world where you can be anything, be kind” words are easy, these actions are not always so easy. This man is living the words and I couldn’t be more grateful,” Natalie continued, thanking the stranger again.
You can never underestimate the effect an act of kindness will have on the receiver… especially if she’s a struggling mom!
“If you see a parent struggling, maybe take the time to say, “are you ok” don’t judge the parenting, try not to judge the child, just be kind,” Natalie concluded in her Facebook post.
“We’re all walking our own path and navigating the journey the best we can, sometimes it takes a moment of kindness from a complete stranger to completely change your day.” Just by reading the replies, it’s easy to see that Natalie’s post resonated with a lot of people who had been in the same situation.
“So amazingly kind and caring. What a wonderful man,” one user gushed, “So happy to see Roo smiling on the walk back to your car. We need more people like this. I have two autistic grandchildren and sometimes people staring and tutting must really upset my daughter and daughter-in-law.”
Many people left a comment just to congratulate the man on his thoughtfulness, while others offered Natalie some valuable advice.
“Have you tried making it a game where you give him a checklist of things he has to spot on the way there, then cross the road and give him a new list he has to complete of different things on the way back?” one mom who had experience with meltdowns wrote.
“The new list could be based on the new side of the street? It might make him feel like he isn’t so much turning back and he might like the routine of spotting things.” Another user pointed out just how misunderstood children on the spectrum are.
“When my son did the same in a supermarket an elderly lady told me to give him a smack that would sort him out,” the woman replied.
“There is little understanding of aspergers, autism and ADHD. Wouldn’t it be great if we could all just lie down where we are when it all gets too much.”
“We’ve had plenty of comments saying he should be kept at home, people in outdoor spaces like National Trust parks telling us to shut him up,” Natalie told the Manchester Evening News.
“…Shoppers in supermarkets staring and commenting under their breath, you’d be surprised how mean people can be about a little boy, but to them they just assume he’s badly behaved.”
Natalie’s story holds an important lesson for all of us. Instead of being judgemental or annoyed when you see a child having a public meltdown with his mother obviously mortified and struggling, rather try to lend a helping hand.
Natalie says that she wishes people would approach her to ask why Rudy is screaming rather than judge the situation without the facts.