A boy with autism broke down at an Orlando theme park. This employee saved the day
(CNN) — While Spider-Man was off-duty, a real-life superhero swung into action to comfort Lenore Koppelman’s son.
She and her husband, Steve, took Ralph, 9, to Universal’s Islands of Adventure theme park in Florida on a trip from New York. Ralph patiently cycled through other rides all day, but all he wanted to do was get on the Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man.
With that attraction positioned near the park exit, he’d have to wait.
Finally, when it was time to ride, Ralph bubbled over with excitement. But with the ride vehicles in sight, Spider-Man broke down.
Ralph, who has autism, “lost it,” Koppelman wrote in a Facebook post.
“We could see (the meltdown) coming, like an oncoming train. And yet we couldn’t dodge out of the way.”
Ralph lay sprawled on the floor of the ride exit, screaming and crying so hard he could barely breathe. People had to step around him. Koppelman wrote such fits are rare, but the one at the park was “epic.”
His parents tried to peel him off the ground as strangers stared at the distraught child.
That’s when Spider-Man ride employee Jen Whelchel lay down next to him.
She let him cry, helped him breathe and diverted foot traffic. She told Ralph it was OK to be sad, Koppelman wrote. The two lay there until the boy felt better.
When they got up, Ralph picked out Spidey trinkets from the gift shop (courtesy of Whelchel). Ralph smiled and thanked her, and Koppelman hugged her, long and hard.
The parent shared her experience in a glowing Facebook recommendation, now shared more than 34,000 times, thanking the “magical people” who made Ralph feel special.
“I noticed his level of upset was more than the regular level of upset,” Whelchel told The Washington Post. “He was really, really, really hurt. It was getting worse by the second.”
The kindness didn’t end with Whelchel.
Koppelman acknowledged the two employees from a park restaurant who found her son a pencil to doodle with when they only had pens, the woman who let Ralph ride the Dr. Seuss-themed carousel twice in a row and the locker attendant near the Revenge of the Mummy roller coaster who led the family through the ride’s “back way” to skip the stairs.
“He is OUR top priority because we love him more than ANYTHING and ANYONE, but you all only just met him today,” she wrote. “And yet you behaved as if you were family.”
Steve Koppelman told CNN the family has dodged dirty looks and assumptions when Ralph has had a meltdown before in public. But the empathy and lack of judgment Whelchel demonstrated made all the difference this time.
“We’d rather have a day where’s it’s just wonderful to begin with,” he said. But instead of getting angry or impatient with Ralph, it was heartening to see employees, “especially Jen, jump in and really know how to kind of get on his level and just de-escalate things.”
Thousands of users thanked Koppelman for her story and praised Whelchel and Universal Orlando for their sensitivity. Koppelman said Whelchel and a customer service representative told her the company trains employees on how best to serve guests with autism.
Ralph didn’t end up riding Spider-Man that day, his mother wrote, but the family plans to take another trip and get in line as soon as they get there.