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Employee saves the day when boy with autism has meltdown at theme park

A Spider-Man ride employee is being called a superhero for how she handled one child's big emotions.
lenore koppelman
/ Source: TODAY

All 9-year-old Ralph Koppelman wanted was to ride The Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man at Universal’s Islands of Adventure theme park in Orlando, Florida. But when the big moment finally arrived, the third grader received disappointing news. The attraction was being closed for the day due to malfunctions. Ralph, who has autism, was devastated.

Ralph’s mom, Lenore Koppelman, chronicled what happened next in a recent Facebook post that has gone viral with more than 40 thousand shares.

“Everyone was very nicely asked to exit. And Ralph, understandably, lost it. (Wouldn’t you?),” Lenore, 44, 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 it DID.”

At that point, the third grader fell to the ground and began “sobbing, screaming, rocking, hyperventilating, and truly struggling to breathe.” Lenore was “frantically” trying to get Ralph to stand up so he wouldn’t get trampled on, when a ride attendant named Jen Whelchel 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,” Lenore wrote. “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.”

It was exactly what he needed to hear. Within 10 minutes, Ralph had regained his composure.

Lenore, a New York City-based face and body makeup artist, was overwhelmed by Whelchel’s compassion and how she expertly diffused a tricky situation. "She was like a special education teacher. She knew exactly what to do," Lenore told TODAY Parents. "There is a huge difference between autism awareness and autism acceptance and Jen understands that."

Lenore's message was flooded with comments. "I am still part of the 'too scared to take them out in crowded places' group. I have 2 sons 10 and 5 that are [autistic] also and they are the center of my world. Every time I read another Moms positive story it gives me a little more courage. Thank you," wrote one person. Added another: "BEST story I have heard in a while."

Though Lenore debated sharing the story publicly, she is glad she did. "Jen went above and beyond," she told TODAY Parents. "We're hoping that it will get other parks and businesses to train their employees thoroughly and make the world a more inclusive place for people like Ralph."

Disclosure: Universal Orlando Resort is part of NBC Universal, the parent company of NBC News and TODAY.