A boy, a zoo, and an autistic meltdown | Days out

Two boys hugging in what looks like an upturned giant plant pot at Chester Zoo

Let me tell you a little story. One that isn’t shown by the abundance of happy photos taken during this day out.

One Friday in August a family went to the zoo. Mummy and Daddy, with their 7 and 9 year old boys.

The 9 year old (J) is autistic, with suspected ADHD. The 7 year old (N) is currently undergoing referrals for assessments too.

The family were hoping it was going to be a day of fun and adventure; seeing lots of animals – especially the meerkats, penguins and red pandas!

A boy stood next to a graphic showing the height of a crane bird; A boy, a zoo, and an autistic meltdown

All was going well – for them, anyway – until they arrived at the otter enclosure half way through the day and the two boys started arguing over every. single. thing. In this instance, who was going to go in the otter viewing area first. (If you’ve never been to Chester Zoo, it’s like a little concave hole in the wall). 

They then arrived at a map of the zoo. This is when things started going drastically downhill. You see, J was tired – and Mummy suspects overwhelmed; by all of the walking, sights, sounds, and people. So much stimulation for an autistic child. He couldn’t get to the front of the group of people to see the map, and he believed he should look at it before N.

Two boys acting like a monkey in front of an image showing how monkeys swing

So after bubbling for the last ten minutes or so, he erupted. Like a volcano. The meltdown happened. Amidst the struggle, Mummy found a bench for the family to sit and gather themselves; but J didn’t want to sit down, oh no, he had to see the map. But with Mummy’s anxiety escalating, her fight or flight mode kicked in and she quickly assessed the situation, deciding it was too dangerous for him to be near other people.

As to not let J get away and potentially hurt these other people, Daddy had to try and hold him – not an easy feat, because at 9 years old he is almost as tall as Mummy, and probably stronger too! Mummy was trying to calm him down with soothing words and actions, but his temper was completely out of control. This culminated in Mummy ending up with a split lip after a head movement (you could say a headbutt) that went wrong. Mummy was doing okay holding it all together until this happened, but then the floodgates opened. (In addition, she was trying to soothe N and keep him calm too).

All the while people were walking past with their heads turned their way, just staring at what was happening. Hopefully they enjoyed the show! (Insert eye roll here). 


And now back to first person Mummy…

I can’t tell you how long this “show” lasted because when you’re in the moment of a meltdown, time passes ever so quickly, yet ever so slowly. I imagine it was at least 20 minutes; possibly 30. J finally managed to regulate himself – which sometimes isn’t an easy feat for an autistic child – and we waited until the map was clear of people before going to have a look at it together.

A boy sat under a giant fake leaf

Chester Zoo claim “many of our team have had training to make them more aware about the challenges that might face people on the autistic spectrum during their visit to the zoo, so we totally understand how you might feel”; but not one staff member who walked past offered any help. Our sunflower lanyard was clearly visible too, so although it wasn’t visually obvious what the disability was within our family, some communication would have been appreciated. Even a simple asking if everything was OK or if we needed any help.

This is why we rarely do big days out.

The overwhelm. It’s real.

The stares. They’re horrible, they make you feel like the worst. parent. ever.

The anxiety at when this will happen. Sometimes it’s a build up so we can prepare, sometimes it’s out of the blue.

I understand that people may not know what to do in these situations, but the disgusted stares DO. NOT. HELP. Just walk on by.

Be kind. 

Be understanding.

A boy stood next to a graphic showing the height of a baby giraffe

And that my friends, is a story from the other side of the lens.

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