Lenore Koppelman had a professional conference to attend in Florida last week and decided it would be a perfect opportunity to visit Universal Orlando Resort with her husband and 9-year-old son, Ralph.
“Ralph is awesomely autistic,” she wrote on Facebook, later adding that she and her husband also are proudly autistic. “As wonderful, loving, intelligent and incredible as Ralph is, sometimes he struggles. (Don’t we all?) When he struggles the hardest, he can have something known as an ‘autistic meltdown.’ ”
Koppleman described in detail Ralph’s extreme excitement to go on The Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man ride at Islands of Adventure. Because of the direction the family was walking, Spider-Man would be their final ride after traversing the park for a few hours. He asked after each ride if Spider-Man was next.
“He was SO patient for SO long. As patient as he possibly could be,” Koppelman wrote. “He would say, ‘Okay’ and sigh, and then enjoy the next ride. But all the while, the excitement was building up to the pinnacle of his day: The Spider-Man ride.”
As the family approached the Spider-Man ride in the late afternoon and was about to get on, an employee announced that the ride was malfunctioning and would be closed. Koppelman, 44, and her husband Steve, 49 — who had gotten the family free tickets because he works as a computer technician for NBC in New York — knew Ralph was going to become overwhelmed and lose control of his emotions.
“My husband and I know the signs. We could see it coming, like an oncoming train. And yet we couldn’t dodge out of the way. There was nowhere else to go,” she wrote. “The autistic meltdown was GOING to HAPPEN. And happen it DID.”
Ralph collapsed to the floor while people were trying to leave the Spider-Man ride, “sobbing, screaming, rocking, hyperventilating, and truly struggling to breathe,” Koppelman wrote.
But as Koppelman was trying to get Ralph up from the ground to protect him, something unexpected happened.
A ride attendant who had been working the Spider-Man ride rushed up and told Koppelman it was all right for Ralph to stay where he was.
“She got down on the floor WITH HIM,” Koppelman wrote. “She rested next to him while he cried his heart out, and she helped him breathe again. She spoke to him so calmly, and while he screamed and sobbed, she gently kept encouraging him to let it all out.”
The ride attendant, Jennifer Whelchel — known by her colleagues as “Mama Jen” — told people who were stopping during his meltdown to please move along, and she also asked strangers not to take pictures.
“I noticed his level of upset was more than the regular level of upset,” Whelchel, 34, said in an interview with The Washington Post. “He was really, really, really hurt. It was getting worse by the second.”
Ralph reminded her of her 8-year-old nephew, who is also autistic. She said it was instinctual for her to lie down with him, because she wanted to be on his level to be able to connect with him, but also wanted to be sure he had his own space.
It was exactly what Ralph needed, and in fact, lying down with him is what teachers and other professionals are trained to do when autistic children are having these types of meltdowns, Koppelman said. But it was so unusual that someone without professional training knew what to do, she added.
And perhaps that’s why when Koppelman posted her story on Facebook, the autistic community and many others exploded with support and cheers, many sharing their own stories of public meltdowns. Tens of thousands of people liked, commented and shared Koppelman’s story.
“I am totally crying! I haven’t gotten the nerve to try an amusement park yet but this gives me hope!” wrote one commenter.
“I have an awesomely Autistic 5 year old little boy and this made me sob like a baby,” wrote another.
“To often when we see small children or people with special needs having what we see as ‘Spoiled Tantrums’ we are all so quick to cast judgements upon them and their caregivers. We expect them to act NORMAL,” wrote a third.
Koppelman told Whelchel that she was “amazing.” She even asked her if she is a special-education teacher, which she is not. Whelchel, a mother of two who has worked at Universal for about six years, said she will begin law school next year.
Whelchel told Koppelman that Universal employees are given sensitivity and awareness training. But dropping to the floor with Ralph was not part of any training session.
So why did it work? Koppelman said Whelchel’s approach was effective because it is supportive and nonconfrontational. Some people think an autistic meltdown is a child acting entitled, Koppelman said, but it actually happens when a child is overwhelmed by emotions, and the outbursts are quite scary for that child, she said. Also, eye contact can be stressful for autistic children.
“What Jen did is a way of saying, ‘I agree with you, I support your feelings, but I’ll lie here quietly,’ ” Koppelman said. “There’s no eye contact, it’s not in-your-face. It’s understanding that you do feel sad and frustrated, and I hear that and I validate that.”
After about 10 minutes, which felt much longer to Koppelman, Ralph’s cries became quieter and he was able to regain control of his emotions. Whelchel asked him if he wanted a drink of water, which he did, and then she asked him if he wanted to sit up, which he also did. Ralph then gave Whelchel a high five, unprompted.
“I hugged her for the LONGEST time . . . several times, if I’m being honest,” Koppelman wrote.
Whelchel made a quick phone call and then told Ralph he could pick out anything in the Spider-Man store to take home, up to $50. Ralph selected a dog-tag necklace with his name on it and a notebook, Koppelman said.
Koppelman said she felt compelled to post on Facebook to thank everyone involved. “And Mama Jen? We love you most of all. ♥,” she wrote.
Whelchel said she felt “honored” to be recognized in such a public way for connecting with a child, which she said is simply her job.
“That’s not the first time I’ve done that and it’s most definitely not the last,” Whelchel said.
Koppelman, who lives in New York with her family and is a face and body makeup artist, said she has been inundated with messages from people who were touched by her post and want to share their own stories about their autistic children. She said people also were appreciative of her writing that her son is “autistic” rather than “having autism.” She said her view is that saying he is autistic is empowering rather than having something that needs to be cured. “We celebrate that they are a little different,” Koppelman said.
She also said she has declined several offers from people who want to send her family money or set up a GoFundMe so Ralph can return to Universal and finally experience the Spider-Man ride.
She did, however, accept an offer from a Universal representative who called and offered free park tickets and a VIP pass for the next time they are in Orlando.
Koppelman said the other offers are generous but unnecessary.
“This is not about us profiting from him having a meltdown,” she said. “He still had a great time.”