After a full day at the theme park, Ralph Koppelman was finally going to be able to get on his favorite ride. Then the meltdown started.
As CNN reports, Lenore and Steve Koppelman had taken a family trip to Orlando, Florida, with their son, Ralph. As Lenore explained on Facebook, Ralph is “awesomely autistic, and we are proud to be a neurodiverse family.”
Unfortunately, not everyone understands that an autistic meltdown is not the same thing as a temper tantrum. Lenore wrote:
[I]t is not the act of a spoiled and naughty child. It’s a cry for help. This is Ralph’s way of saying, “I don’t know how to monitor and regulate my emotions right now. I need help, please! I’m scared! I’m overwhelmed! I want to feel better and I don’t know how!”
On May 29, the family went to Universal’s Islands of Adventure park, where Ralph was eager to ride the Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man ride. Because the ride was near the park exit, his parents explained they would ride Spider-Man at the end. Ralph did his best to accept this, but it didn’t stop him from asking about it all day.
When they finally got to the Spider-Man ride, the family handed over the handicap access tickets, which let them wait out the time somewhere more bearable. For Ralph, this meant walking away from the ride again, which was frustrating. His mom wrote that though the “anticipation was driving him wild,” Ralph handled it well as the family waited somewhere cool for 15 minutes.
I would like to share something incredibly special with you all. A day we will never forget. Today we took our little…
Finally, they went back to the ride for their turn:
When we finally got back to Spider-Man, he was leaping for joy. He thought “OH WOW! This is IT! FINALLY!” and you should have seen the SMILE on his face. It was incredible. Then when it was almost our turn to board, and he could see the end in sight, the vehicles right in front of us, we got the news that the ride had broken down. Everyone was very nicely asked to exit. And Ralph, understandably, lost it. (Wouldn’t you?)
The news that the ride was broken was too much for Ralph, who had waited all day for this moment. At that moment, Lenore knew her son was going to lose control, but as she wrote on Facebook, there was no way to stop it:
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.
Ralph had a meltdown there at the exit of the ride:
Ralph collapsed onto the floor while crowds of people were attempting to exit the ride and the gift shop attached to it. He began sobbing, screaming, rocking, hyperventilating, and truly struggling to breathe.
While Lenore tried desperately to get her son to stand up so he wouldn’t be stepped on by people leaving the ride, a park employee named Jen Whelchel came to the rescue.
Whelchel told Lenore to let her son lie on the floor. Then she lay down next to Ralph and helped him through the meltdown. Lenore wrote:
She got down on the floor WITH HIM. 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. She told people to keep on walking around them, so they would stop standing there and staring. And then she told him it was okay for him to be sad and feel this way. She understood. She would feel the same way too. His feelings were validated. And she told him he could lay there with her as long as he needed to until he felt better.
As Lenore watched, Whelchel’s calming presence began to help Ralph calm down. Within 10 minutes, the meltdown had ended, and Ralph was feeling better. The mom told Today:
“She was like a special education teacher. She knew exactly what to do. There is a huge difference between autism awareness and autism acceptance and Jen understands that.”
Lenore later learned why Whelchel knew how to handle Ralph’s meltdown. Whelchel explained to the grateful mom that all Universal Studios staff get special training in working with individuals with autism and those with special needs.
Once Ralph’s meltdown had ended, Whelchel offered him the chance to pick out something from the gift shop to make him feel better. By the time he had picked out a Spider-Man ID tag and a little pen and notebook set, Ralph was able to smile again.
Lenore was so happy at the way that Whelchel and other Universal staff responded to her son with special needs that she wanted to share it with the world. She told Today that she hopes the story will inspire other businesses and theme parks to, “train their employees thoroughly and make the world a more inclusive place for people like Ralph.”
Unfortunately, Ralph never did get to ride the Spider-Man ride, but Lenore says they’re planning another trip and will make sure he gets to ride it first. She concluded with a big “thank you” to all the staff at Universal, especially Whelchel:
“THANK YOU for BEING THERE for us today, and for making us feel like Ralph’s well-being was your top priority. He is OUR top priority because we love him more than ANYTHING and ANYONE, but you all only just met him today. And yet you behaved as if you were family. And we TRULY cannot thank you enough.”