I just don’t get it – thoughts on the #ElmoMom controversy

7 Mar

It caught my eye on Twitter, a retweet of a headline with a link attached – “Bystanders were horrified. But my son has autism, and I was desperate.”

I clicked on the link.

I read the article.

I’m pretty sure my mouth gaped open as this woman described how she dragged herself and her kid across the floor in an attempt to break him of his phobia of indoor spaces to where Elmo was performing.

Read at your own discretion over on the Washington Post

I’ve been mulling over this for days, still flabbergasted by it all. I read it to my husband, who turned to me, horrified. “Sorry, but that’s just abuse. Why didn’t anyone call the police?”

Mind you, we had an incident with Maura last year that caused mall security to rush our way to assess the situation when she was having a meltdown. They had heard there was a “woman screaming on the sky bridge”. We’d been on the sky bridge for, oh, three minutes. We were still in the middle of the sky bridge that spanned the six lane city street below us and we had security guards running up to intervene.

This woman’s determination to drag her son in to see Elmo took “36 minutes and 45 seconds”. Thirty six minutes of her “heaving and dragging us both, inch by dreadful inch” across the floor of some arena as her five year old was ” shrieking at an alarmingly high pitch”.

That was the thing that still bothers me the most. Almost no one intervened as this woman literally dragged her child in a restraining hold across a floor. One manager tried, she threw out that her son had autism and had the right to be there.
The manager backed off.

Otherwise, no one stopped them. No one helped them either. No one did anything – except maybe to hurry past, shielding their own small children from this spectacle while trying to explain to their own children why this child was being dragged across the floor screaming.

And I just don’t get it. 

I can’t wrap my brain around it.

I can’t imagine having the strength and determination to fight a child on their phobia for 36 minutes while they screamed and flailed in fear.



[Image description – an in-ground pool] Photo by Casey Clingan on Unsplash

When I was a kid, I had a fear of being underwater. I enjoyed being in the pool, just don’t ask me to put my head under, or make me take off my water wings.

Ironically, my grandparents had an in-ground pool – they had bought a house during the Blizzard of 1978 in Chicago, and the sellers didn’t disclose the pool. It appeared when the snow melted.

We kids thought the pool was amazing. I hung out in the 3ft section, but would put on my floatation devices to go in the 8ft section. I was given a hard time, being 8-9 years old, still unable to swim, clinging to my floaties. Not by my grandparents – they bought different floaties for me to use.

But one day, my dad got fed up and decided the best way for me to get over my fear of swimming and being underwater was to throw me, floatie-free, into the 8ft section. I was panicked, desperately trying to keep my head underwater. I heard my grandfather yell “What the hell is wrong with you?” as my grandmother dove in.

See, my dad couldn’t swim either.

But I was supposed to conquer my fear. 

I can still remember the panic I felt, being forced to face my fear that day. And while I didn’t stop going into the pool, I still had the fear of going underwater. I didn’t learn how to swim that afternoon. I didn’t learn how to swim that summer even. It took another year or two. And it happened on my terms. 

That was me, as a child with an above average IQ, and my fears. Fears that I could use reason to overcome. Fears I could explain, having a very large vocabulary for my age.

Maura has had a few fears, weird fears – for instance, play tunnels. She was terrified of them. We discovered this at a very busy IKEA store. The three older siblings ducked through the short tunnel with a curtain of plastic streamers at the entrance of the kid’s section. Josh thought that Maura would want to do what the others were doing – as that was her usual tendency. He gave her a nudge into the tunnel.

Her piercing shrieks made every head turn.

Josh quickly pulled her out of there and comforted her. And we avoided every play tunnel with her until once day, years later, when she decided she was ready to try it.

Going back even further than that, Maura had a fear of bathing. Placing her in a tub was like placing her in a vat of lava. She would shriek and try to climb back up me. I tried everything – tub seats, sitting in the tub with her, using the sink instead of the tub. None of it mattered – it all terrified her. We resorted to washcloth baths with the occasional shower where one parent held her while the other one scrubbed her quickly.

Her cleanliness wasn’t worth her being traumatized. 



[Image description – black and white photo of a dark tiled wall, a white towel hanging on the right] Photo by David Cohen on Unsplash

One day, at about nine months, I sat her in the tub, giving the bath thing another try. Her face began to tremble. I made the water splash a little – splinky splinky.

Her eyes grew wide.

I splashed a little again.

She splashed a little.

She grinned.

Just like that, the fear of the bathtub was done. It got to the point where she’d hear the faucet and come speed crawling down the hall, grinning ear to ear. To this day, she adores the water.

So why the fear for the first 9 months of her life?

I figured it out months later. When she was nine months old, she had conquered sitting up. Before that, she had a hard time keeping her balance in a sitting position. She wasn’t born with that natural ability to self-right. Nor was she able to catch herself when she was unbalanced. These things had to be taught to her.

So any time the water started moving against her, she’d startle. She would feel unsecure, and have no sense of balance. She had no control over her own body. No wonder she felt terrified.

Thank God I didn’t force her to just deal with baths every night. I can only imagine the phobias and avoidances I would have created. 

This is why this article, this example of “saving” a child from their phobias in a do or die, forcing the issue in such a dramatic fashion…just doesn’t sit right with me. Not as a parent of a child who has had what seemed like unreasonable fears, and not as the child who was thrown into the deep end in an attempt to overcome an unreasonable fear.

As a mom, I’m supposed to be the safe place for my child. I should be the one they can always trust.  

Over the weekend, Maura and I were out and heading back to the parking garage where we’d left the car. Maura was insisting we had to go one direction to the car. I explained to her that it was not that way but the way I was pointing. It had begun to rain. I stood on that corner, in the cold rain,  holding all our stuff as Maura insisted we had to go the other way.

“Maura, the car is over there.” I pointed in the opposing direction. “Can you trust me on this?”

She paused.

“Okay Mom.”

And with that, she followed me. She trusted me. Because while I’ve been teaching her all sorts of things, I’ve also made sure I’ve retained her trust. I didn’t have to force her, drag her by the arm, etc.

This didn’t happen overnight. This didn’t happen within a calendar year. I took things at Maura’s pace within reason. (If she was trying to play in the street and a car was coming, then no, it’s a grab and run to safety motion, explain later – which you’d do with any child.) I slowed my steps down to match hers.

Some things just take a lot more time with Maura.  And as the parent, I didn’t/don’t get to determine the time line, because while I may have benefited from some things, ultimately, this was/is Maura’s life, and what we do should be for her benefit.

This example of this mother taking matters into her own hands, taking it upon herself to break him of a habit instantly, brings up another thought I have always had –

Parents, as a whole, make lousy therapists. This is why we take our kids to someone else to teach them certain things or correct certain problems.

I make a lousy speech therapist, despite having been a kid in speech therapy myself.

This mom? Would make a lousy behavioral therapist. I wouldn’t take my kid to be manhandled by her.

Yes, as parents, we are our kid’s first teachers.

Yes, as parents, we teach them so much.

But there’s something about having to be a therapist to your child that crosses a line. You can’t be that safe space, that soft landing, when you have to also play therapist and make them do things they don’t want to do.

Maura doesn’t want me to be her therapist. She wants me to be her mother.

She let me know this the first time I was asked to hang out in her preschool classroom. She looked at me and yelled. I didn’t belong there, and we both knew it. The teacher even laughed and said “She feels you don’t belong here.”

Maura may have a label of moderately intellectually disabled. Maura may not be as verbal as either of us would like. But she expresses herself and my job is to listen.

The boy in the article was melting down because of fear, and his mom refused to listen to him and put her own will and desires first.

And the worst part of the article, to me, is that everyone around her just let her do this.

They let her drag him across the floor screaming.

They walked by as he screamed in terror.

Mom yelled “He has autism!” and everyone went “Well, okay then.”

Since when does “He has autism!” allow for mistreatment to happen? Because it was mistreatment. As she stated, no doctor thought this was a good move. She wasn’t trained to do this.

And they let it go on.

For thirty-six minutes. 

For thirty-six minutes people walked by this mother on the floor, her screaming son clamped between her legs, dragging them both across the floor. And let it happen “because autism”.

How is that acceptable?

Newsflash – it isn’t. But it just sets up children like mine to be abused by people more. Because we’re legitimatizing this sort of treatment towards kids with special needs. We’re excusing ill-treatment of children because they’re not “normal”. Because the goal for kids like Maura isn’t to stand out, it’s to blend in. Even if it means bullying them into submission.

And we’re okay with that as a society. 

We are allowing it.

We allow it by walking past.

We allow it by saying nothing.

We allow it by letting this article be published.

We allow it by giving this woman a book deal.

We allow it by letting her speak to other parents whose child has been newly diagnosed with a cognitive disorder. And she’s telling them “Do what it takes to break them. It’s okay. You want them to blend in. The goal is to make them blend in.”

Someone please explain to me why this is alright. Because I don’t get it.



[Image description – Maura, sitting in front of our really messy bookshelves, wearing black headphones and a blue tee shirt, looking down]













As Maura’s mom, I’ve had to make her participate in certain things she wasn’t thrilled about. Like blood draws, or wearing seatbelts. There are certain things, for health or safety reasons, you just have to enforce as a parent. Not playing with fire – that’s a hill I will die on.

Parenting, in general, is about picking your battles. Knowing which to fight, which to concede, which to compromise and meet in the middle over.

I was a parent before I became a special needs parent. There were three others who came before Maura, who shaped me as a mother before she entered the scene. In many ways, my parenting didn’t change with Maura.

Thank goodness.

Stepping into the world of special needs parenting after having gotten three kids through toddlerhood was overwhelming. Suddenly, I was supposed to do everything, try everything, be everything. All my focus was supposed to be put on Maura, in fixing her.

Except I knew Maura before I knew of her disabilities. And I liked who this tiny smiling girl was. She didn’t seem to need fixing, just aide and assistance.

Not to mention, I still had three other children who needed my attention. Three other children who taught me how to pick battles, how to take a step back and realize it wasn’t about me and my wants.

I had three other children who reminded me that maybe none of them would be brain surgeons.  That part of their life wasn’t about me.

Those three siblings of Maura, who were her biggest cheerleaders and best examples back then, were also a good litmus test when it came to parenting Maura.

“Would I do this with Collin?”

“Would I do this to Miriam?”



Why or why not?




13 Responses to “I just don’t get it – thoughts on the #ElmoMom controversy”

  1. The Midnight Goose March 7, 2018 at 1:18 pm #

    I discussed this with my wife after reading your article–and we both agreed that we would say something if we saw a mother dragging her autistic child like this. However, I guess all of us that don’t have autistic children, and don’t have experience with autism, may not know what we would do in a situation like this until it happens. Sometimes, not having any experience, a person might feel that they are doing the wrong thing by interfering. Regardless, having read about it, I definitely agree that this mother needs education and support in regards to raising her special needs son.

    Side note: not knowing about your house having a pool until the snow melts is hilarious!

    • Joe March 13, 2018 at 6:36 am #

      I share your thoughts exactly,

  2. mrsmotherdirt March 7, 2018 at 1:57 pm #

    Wow. I don’t think I could stomach that article about #Elmomom. 😦 It’s terrifying to feel out of control and to have the person you love and who is supposed to support and help guide you be a source of fear, is too much for my heart to bear. Sometimes we are unable to separate our children’s likes/dislikes from our own strong desires that we want to see reflected in our kids. I get that. But our kids are their own unique person. Like you stated in your post, it’s our job to provide a safe space for our kids. I agree with that. Unconditional love is accepting our kids for who they are and where they are at, and loving them none the less.

  3. Katie March 7, 2018 at 2:08 pm #

    If you don’t mind my asking, how would you have intervened? This society seems to react to any assistance or advice, especially with one’s children, with a ‘piss off and mind your own business’ attitude.

    • Phoebe March 7, 2018 at 2:21 pm #

      In that particular situation – I don’t know if the mom would let anyone intervene. She told the manager who talked to her to basically butt out and honestly, that’s when security would have to step in (which could make things worse, I know – but having been confronted by security myself with my daughter, I get why they intervened, and they were instantly understanding and offered help.)

      In my own person circumstance, I’ve been in a situation where Maura was in the throes of a complete meltdown. I had to wait it out while trying to calmly talk her out of it. One woman stopped and said “Is there anything I can do? I have M&Ms in my purse, will that help?” which lead to another woman asking “Will getting you a cart help?” and so on. Their offers of help (one in the form of popcorn from the snack place) did actually help break Maura out of the tantrum.

      Sometimes, I will say “No but thank you for asking”. But you’re right – me being approachable is probably part of the solution.

      Funny enough, most of the people who offer help – end up telling me they have a child/sibling/know someone like Maura. They get it.

      • franhunne4u March 7, 2018 at 3:37 pm #

        And I think that is the explanation – most people who passed by that day saw a mum who seemed to “fight” against a kid that had a meltdown – she did not beat that kid, she did not yell at him, she grabbed him and dragged him. How many parents of 3 year olds haven’t done that? They did not know it would last half an hour, I doubt the people around were staying long enough. When the mother yelled at the person who offered help that her son was autistic, I would not have interfered – I would have thought she had more experience in dealing with her autistic child – as I have none. So anything I could have said would have been unfounded.

        I get your rage at the mom – but even though Maura is not autistic, you have been in situations with your daughter that might have looked from the outside like this one. You have led her away and out of malls when she wanted to buy just another Frozen-goodie and another and another – and she then got a meltdown from all the triggers.

        You would have hated people interfering – you are not the kind of person who likes it when people help. And most people simply do not know what to do anyway.

        I do not even have children, let alone some with special behaviours. I would not have felt in a position to offer advice to a mother who obviously was strongly bent on taking her son somewhere. Why should all those “bystanders” know that she was not getting the child into a shoe-shop, or to the hairdresser or to a doctor? She did not wear a badge saying: I am taking my son to a tightly packed place which he hates with a passion.

        Sure, by reading in your blog and reading other articles even I know now that autism and big assemblies are not a match made in heaven. That children at that age who suffer from autism are better off some place they know and having a routine. But the average shopper might not know.

        How were those onlookers supposed to know that the mom tried some kind of exposure therapy she might have heard about, but which does not work with a five year old autistic child? Obviously the MOM who had five years of experience with an autistic child did not know. How were they to know?

      • Phoebe March 7, 2018 at 5:53 pm #

        Most people aren’t on the floor dragging their child who is clamped between their legs in a restraining hold…

        I’ve had to remove Maura from situations and deal with meltdowns. But I have also sat on the floor with her and let her get through it. I try to remove her from what is upsetting her, not drag her towards/into the thing she feared.

        And I’m pretty sure the people working in the arena got to watch a good portion of her 36 minute ordeal.

      • franhunne4u March 8, 2018 at 2:48 am #

        You condemned all around that mom alike – and that won’t do. Some were just passer-bys, some were not even sure what to do with a kid without autism … she did not BEAT her kid. She dragged him – but did they know where to? It might have been a dentist visit, for all they knew.

      • Phoebe March 8, 2018 at 3:49 am #

        Did you read the article I linked to? They were at an arena to see a Sesame Street Live show. The only reason to be there would be to see the show. She dragged him screaming across the floor for 36 minutes. Surely that should warrant a raised eyebrow from someone.

      • franhunne4u March 8, 2018 at 3:10 pm #

        Particularly for other show-viewers …

  4. bluerosegirl08 March 7, 2018 at 4:17 pm #

    I read the Washington Post article and was so mad I could spit. It’s a wonder she did not make her son’s fear worse instead of better.

  5. saralr1221 March 8, 2018 at 3:10 pm #

    So I read the article and it seemed like an extreme method but it worked for them. Her son isn’t traumatized, he can go in closed spaces now. I think it really depends on the parent and depends on the child.
    Sometimes the most horrific parts of parenting are the hardest. I remember my mom holding me down so a doctor could set a broken bone. And another time when I fell running from bees and a stick got jammed in my hand. My mom and two nurses had to hold me down while I screamed (I was like 5) so they could inject Novocaine in my hand and dig out pieces of wood and grass. It’s HARD to force your children through painful circumstances like vaccines and setting bones and pulling foreign matter out of their hands or forcing them to take a bath when they don’t want to.
    But life is very hard and at some age everyone has to learn how to endure pain, fear and unpleasantness. The ability to cope with these experiences is what makes us healthy adults. At some point you have to guide your child through something scary or painful or terrible. We shouldn’t expect just because we live in such comfort that we will never have to endure hardship.
    It really reminds me of a cross cultural study where different cultures thought the others were abusing or neglecting their kids but really they weren’t. It’s just a different standard depending on perspective. In some countries it’s normal to give infants freezing baths and them shake them dry. Westerners who see this think the babies are being abused but it’s normal for that culture. Others think that making babies sleep in separate rooms from their mothers is neglect. I’d think twice before I judged someone’s parenting, even if it seems really different from my own.

    • Bungy Heart March 9, 2018 at 2:10 am #

      “Her son isn’t traumatized, he can go in closed spaces now”.
      It doesn’t mean he’s not traumatized; it means he’s compliant. There’s a very large difference. She describes his behaviour as “calm and predictable”, not happy, excited, eager. That speaks volumes to me.

      Anyone repeatedly exposed to abuse is likely to become passive, demoralised, compliant. When he tried to tell her not to take him in a closed space, she didn’t listen; she forced him. When the people who you’re *supposed* to be able to count on physically force you to do things that terrify you, you shut down.

      There is a very large difference between holding a child to have necessary medical treatment, as you describe, and sitting on them to inch them into a loud, busy, enclosed space.

      I’m autistic myself. I would quite likely have turned around and headed back out the door on a high sensory-sensitivity day. If someone had tried to hold me and force me to go in, I would absolutely call that abuse.

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