Like most children on the autism spectrum, my son tends to get overstimulated by things going on around him, especially if there is an awful lot of stimuli in his environment such as might be experienced at a crowded store (such as Walmart or Target); and when he does he quite often starts getting loud and running back and forth. Now admittedly, this can be somewhat distracting to other people, but my wife and I can normally get him to stop though it takes constant reminders to keep him from starting up again. It also can lead to meltdowns which all too many people mistake for tantrums. A perfect example of the former happened this weekend. My wife and I had to stop at Target to pick up a few things my daughter needed and some medicine for me since I was under the weather, and of course, it being Valentines Day weekend, the place was a mad house; but other than starting to get a bit loud, Wills was amazingly good about things. So, to reward him for his good behavior, we stopped at Panera's to get him a cookie on the way home; where he started running back and forth along the length of the counter from the front of the store to the back. Since I wasn't feeling all that great, and I was trying to order I wasn't quite as fast to call him back to us and tell him not to do that as I normally would be and an older gentleman decided to ignore the cashier trying to take his order to make comments about how we needed to teach Wills better manners. Fortunately for him, I didn't hear him, but my wife did and if he hadn't shut up when he did he would have gotten the dressing down of his life.
So what exactly is it about autistic children (and adults too truth be known) that causes this sort of behavior when over stimulated? Well for one thing, people with autism tend to have what is commonly referred to as Sensory Integration Disorder to some extent or another, which results in all of their senses being wide open all the time. Most people such as you and I can ignore things going on around us to the extent that if it's something our brain tells us is normal we don't even notice it consciously, but someone on the spectrum like my son is constantly aware of everything, and I do mean everything! The brightness of the lights, the smells drifting out of the snack stand, the perfume being worn by the lady 2 isles over, the ping of the cash registers, the excited squeals of a child getting a new toy, the crying of a baby near the back, the squeaking of the wheels on a buggy behind him, the clink of new stock being put on the shelves by an employee, all them things you and I would never even notice but my son is very much aware of and cannot shut out. Is it any wonder he gets over loaded? I think I would probably go mad if I had to deal with it, so how can I hold his getting over excited against him? Especially when I've told him that he's getting a reward for dealing with it as well as he did this weekend!
So the next question then becomes why do people on the autism spectrum experience this sensory overload where you and I don't? Part of it at least seems to come from the way their brain develops. MRI's of people with autism tend to show that they have way too many connections to their brain stems, and often other parts of their brains as well. The most commonly accepted theory from this is that these extra connections result in extraordinary sensitivity to various sensory inputs which in turn causes them to be unable to filter out extraneous stimuli that neurotypical people would never even notice. Add in a lack of social awareness, and it becomes something these children have a very difficult time learning to deal with in a socially acceptable way.
So the next time you're at a restaurant or busy store and a child starts running back and forth, flapping his or her hands and making "weird" sounds, stop and consider that that child might be autistic and is trying their best to deal with more stimuli that you have ever noticed in your life; then reconsider your comments on how that child needs to be taught better manners. We, the parents of autistic children, are doing our best and we definitely don't need your snide remarks about something we have to deal with day in and day out. Our lives are stressful enough as it is without having to deal with you as well. Or, as my wife was ready to tell that rude and condescending asshole at Panera's, if you don't know what you're talking about (and he didn't) then keep your mouth shut or else you may need a pry bar to remove your feet from it!