An act of kindness done by an employee at a theme park, for an autistic boy, is winning the hearts of people everywhere.
Lenore Koppelman was in Florida to attend a professional conference and thought it was the perfect chance to visit Universal Orlando Resort with her husband and 9-year-old son, Ralph.
“Ralph is awesomely autistic,” she wrote on Facebook, mentioning later that she and her husband also are 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.’ ”
She wrote about Ralph’s extreme excitement to go on The Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man ride at Islands of Adventure.
They were enjoying their time in the park and after a few hours the last ride they would be taking was the Spider-Man ride.
“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.”
It was late afternoon and as they approached the Spider-Man ride, an employee then told them that the ride was malfunctioning and would be closed.
Koppelman, 44, and her husband Steve, 49 had family free tickets as he worked as a computer technician for NBC in New York, and immediately knew that Ralph would become overwhelmed and get out of control.
“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 on the floor as people were leaving the Spider-Man ride, “sobbing, screaming, rocking, hyperventilating, and truly struggling to breathe,” Koppelman wrote.
But suddenly, something unexpected happened which changed the whole situation.
Koppelman was trying to get her son up from the ground, when just then an attendant at the Spider-Man ride came up to her and told her it was all right for Ralph to be 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.”
Jennifer Whelchel, the ride attendant, known as “Mama Jen” by her colleagues, told people who were crowding around Ralph, to move along and not take pictures.
“I noticed his level of upset was more than the regular level of upset,” Whelchel, 34, said “He was really, really, really hurt. It was getting worse by the second.”
Ralph reminded Whelchel of her 8-year-old nephew, who is also autistic.
She said it came by instinct to her to lie down next to him, as she wanted to be on his level to connect with him, and also wanted to ensure that he had his own space.
Ralph needed this, and lying down is what teachers and other professionals are trained to do when autistic children are having meltdowns such as this, Koppelman said.
She was amazed that someone without professional training knew what to do, she added.
That is the reason behind Koppelman putting out her story on Facebook, it received praise and cheers from the autistic community and tens of thousands of others as well.
“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.
Koppelman told Whelchel how “amazing” she was, she asked her if she was a special-education teacher, which she was not.
Whelchel, a mother of two has worked at Universal for the last 6 years and 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 wasn’t part of training.
Koppelman said Whelchel’s approach was effective as it supported Ralph and was non-confrontational.
When an autistic child drops to the ground it is because the child is overwhelmed by emotions, and is very scary for that child, eye contact is 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 10 minutes, Ralph’s cries became quieter and regained control of his emotions.
Whelchel gave Ralph a drink of water and then asked if he wanted to sit up, which he did, and then out of the blue, he gave Whelchel a high five.
“I hugged her for the LONGEST time . . . several times, if I’m being honest,” Koppelman wrote.
Whelchel then made a quick phone call and then told Ralph he could choose 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 just wanted to post on Facebook and thank all involved, “And Mama Jen? We love you most of all. ♥,” she wrote.
Whelchel said she felt “honored” being recognized publicly for connecting with a child, which she said was her job.
“That’s not the first time I’ve done that and it’s most definitely not the last,” Whelchel said.
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Koppelman, is a New York based face and body makeup artist, and said that 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 appreciated that she wrote her son was “autistic” instead of “having autism.” She said for her saying he is autistic is empowering rather than something which needs to be cured. “We celebrate that they are a little different,” Koppelman said.
She has declined several offers of people wanting to send her family, money, or set up a GoFundMe so that Ralph could return to Universal and experience the Spider-Man ride.
But accepted 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.
She says the offers are generous but not needed as they did not want to profit out of Ralph’s meltdown.