Ralph Koppelman, age 9, was itching to ride the Spider-Man attraction. Finally, as his family wrapped up their day at the Universal Orlando Resort last week, the time came. Spider-Man would be the last ride, and Ralph was bursting to get on it.
Then came the announcement: The ride closed because of technical problems. As described in a Washington Post article, Ralph, who has autism, launched into a full-on meltdown—sobbing, screaming, and hyperventilating.
What happened next came as huge surprise to Ralph’s mother, Lenore Koppelman. Ride attendant Jennifer Welchel dashed over and lay down next to Ralph on the ground, talking to him quietly and guiding him to control his breathing.
Welchel, a mother of two, is also aunt to an 8-year-old boy with autism. She knows from her interactions with her nephew the calming power of connecting without invading.
“What Jen did is a way of saying, ‘I agree with you, I support your feelings, but I’ll lie here quietly,’” says Koppelman in the Washington Post article. “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.”
The approach worked and 10 minutes later, Ralph regained his composure and agreed to a drink of water. He even high-fived Welchel, unprompted. She also arranged for the park to give him a $50 voucher to Universal’s Spider-Man store. Impressed with Welchel’s actions, Koppelman recounts the story in a Facebook post.
The post went viral, generating thousands of shares and comments. Many commenters on the post note how autism meltdowns are often misjudged as tantrums thrown by spoiled children. Commenters express appreciation for Welchel’s understanding. “As a father to an ‘awesomely autistic boy,’ I love hearing stories like this,” writes one responder. “It gives me hope that there is compassion from others in these types of situations in these kinds of places.”
Bridget Murray Law is editor-in-chief of The ASHA Leader.