The mother of a boy with autism has credited a Universal Orlando theme park employee with saving the day when her son had an ‘autistic meltdown’ after a ride broke.
Lenore Koppelman, of New York City, took to Facebook to recommend the Universal Orlando Resort while sharing a touching story about how several of theme park employees went above and beyond to make her nine-year-old son, Ralph, comfortable while he was there on vacation.
On May 28, Lenore wrote in a post that has now gone viral, that she took Ralph — who she described as being ‘awesomely autistic’ — to the resort for the first time that day and that he was ‘EXTREMELY excited’ to go on the Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man ride at the resort’s Islands of Adventure.
Mom Lenore Koppelman took to Facebook to praise Universal Orlando employee Jennifer Whelchel (in purple) who helped soothe her son, Ralph (in green), while he was in the midst of an ‘autistic meltdown’ after an anticipated ride broke down
Lenore noted that they had saved the ride for last, as it was closest to the exit, and that Ralph had been ‘SO patient for SO long’ while waiting for ‘the pinnacle of his day.’
When they finally got to the Spider-Man ride, Lenore wrote that Ralph was given his handicap-access tickets, allowing him to spend the ride’s 15 minute wait time in a ‘more bearable’ environment for him than standing on line.
During that time, ‘The anticipation was driving him wild! But he did his very best to regulate it with the tools he has been given over the years by his teachers and therapy team at his special needs school back home,’ Lenore wrote.
After their wait time ended, Lenore, her husband and Ralph returned to the ride, with Ralph ‘leaping for joy.’
Things started to go pear-shaped, however, right before as the family was about to board their ride vehicle.
They were informed that the ride had broken down and they, and everyone else, was asked to exit the attraction.
‘Ralph, understandably, lost it. (Wouldn’t you?),’ Lenore wrote. ‘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. The autistic meltdown was GOING to HAPPEN. And happen it DID.’
Lenore said that Whelchel talked with her son, told him it was OK to be upset and to take as much time as he needed, while telling onlookers to keep moving when they stopped to stare
Nine-year-old Ralph (in green) eventually calmed down and was taken to the ride’s store, where Whelchel offered to buy him anything he wanted up to $50, but all the child asked for was a small notebook and an ID tag with his name on it
Lenore (with Ralph and her husband) asked Whelchel how she knew what to do to help Ralph and Whelchel revealed that Universal theme park employees receive special training on how to help visitors with special needs
Lenore’s story about how Whelchel helped Ralph (pictured) quickly went viral
‘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,’ Lenore wrote, describing Ralph’s behavior.
Earlier in the post, Lenore had noted that ‘autistic meltdowns’ were not temper tantrums, as many people assume, but ‘a cry for help,’ a way for her son to show that he is scared, overwhelmed and unable to monitor and regulate his emotions.
It was while Lenore was attempting to get Ralph to stand up so that he wouldn’t get stepped on by exiting ride-goers, that a Universal theme park employee called Jen ‘RUSHED over’ and told Lenore to let Ralph stay on the ground ‘if that’s where he needed to be.’
Then, Lenore wrote, Jen ‘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.’
As this was happening, Lenore wrote that Jen told people to walk around them, instead of stopping and staring at them on the floor.
Jen also told Ralph ‘it was okay for him to be sad and feel this way… And she told him he could lay there with her as long as he needed to until he felt better.’
Lenore said that Ralph didn’t have the chance to go on the Spider-Man ride (pictured), but that the family would definitely be heading back in the future to go on it
Lenore said that she accepted a Universal Orlando representative’s offer of free tickets and VIP passes for a future visit, but refused offers of setting up a GoFundMe or donations from strangers to help fund the trip
When Ralph’s ‘meltdown’ came to an end, Jen took the child to the gift shop attached to the ride and told him she would treat him to any item up to $50 inside the store.
Instead of getting something more expensive, as Jen tried to suggest, Ralph was said to have replied, ‘No thanks, I’m good,’ sticking with just a palm-sized notebook and pen and an ID tag with his name and Spider-Man’s face on it.
As they were leaving, Lenore wrote that she asked Jen how she knew what to do when Ralph was having his meltdown.
‘She told me that everyone at Universal Studios gets special training when it comes to people who are awesomely autistic, as well as other special needs,’ Lenore wrote, adding that she hugged Jen ‘for the LONGEST time… several times, if I’m being honest.’
Because one good deed deserves another, Lenore and her family ‘marched straight over’ to the theme park’s customer relations outpost ‘to sing Jen’s praises,’ showing the employee who worked there the pictures — included in the Facebook post — of Jen lying on the floor next to a visibly upset Ralph.
The employee was said to have gotten teary-eyed over the story and reiterated the level of training theme park employees got for helping special needs visitors.
In her Facebook post, Lenore also took the time to acknowledge other Universal theme park employees who helped to make Ralph’s visit a success when he was having a hard time with over-stimulation at the park.
She praised two women, Lindsey and Vee, who worked at the Mythos restaurant, also in Islands of Adventure, who tracked down a freshly-sharpened pencil for Ralph to use while drawing to calm himself down, when all that was readily available was a pen.
Lenore also thanked a nameless Caro-Seuss-el employee who ‘let Ralph ride it again without having to get back in line because she saw the laughter and joy on his face’ and someone called Augustin from Revenge of the Mummy: The Ride, who ‘rushed over’ to help the family while they struggled with the lockers and then ‘without even being asked, befriended Ralph and led us over to the ride via the magical ‘back way’, complete with elevator and a bypassing of much of the line.’
Finally, Lenore gave major props to And finally, a MEGA THANKS to an employee called Sidney J. Dragon, who brought Ralph water, sat on the floor with him and then acted as the family’s tour guide for the rest of the day, despite his shift having ended.
‘You are all MAGICAL people. TRULY,’ Lenore wrote.
She finished off the Facebook post by noting that Ralph never got the chance to go on the Spider-Man ride, but ‘don’t worry’ as the family plans to save up to either return to Universal Orlando or go to Universal Studios Hollywood.
Having learned their lesson, Lenore wrote: ‘we will go to the Spider-Man ride FIRST. They DEFINITELY have a repeat customer in us!’
Lenore told the Washington Post that while she has declined offers of having a GoFundMe set up or receiving donations from strangers to fund a future Universal Studios trip, she did accept a theme park representative’s offer of free park tickets and a VIP pass the next time they do find themselves in Orlando.
‘This is not about us profiting from him having a meltdown,’ Lenore told the newspaper. ‘He still had a great time.’
The newspaper also spoke with the theme park employee at the center of the Facebook post, Jennifer Whelchel, 34, a mother of two who has worked at Universal Orlando for six years and will start law school in 2020.
Whelchel told the Washington Post that Ralph reminded her of her eight-year-old nephew who also has autism.
She said that she took action because she ‘noticed his level of upset was more than the regular level of upset’ and said that ‘He was really, really, really hurt. It was getting worse by the second.’
Whelchel said that is ‘honored’ to be recognized to publicly for what she did, while humbly noting that it was her job, and and added that ‘That’s not the first time I’ve done that and it’s most definitely not the last.’