For those of you who dont know, my youngest son, Christopher, is on the autistic spectrum. I went to his back to school night on Thursday and took a picture of one of his projects displayed on the wall, one of many cute little cards that all the kids in his class had filled out. It asked him to list his favorite foods, sport, TV shows etc.I took the picture hurriedly, and didnt notice all the answers he had filled out at that time. It was only after I got home that something stood out upon closer review.
Do you guys remember, a couple of weeks ago, the massive amount of press that the Florida State Football player got when he sat down at the lunch table with an autistic boy that was eating alone? That player didnt know the boy was on the autistic spectrum when he sat down with himhe just saw a boy eating lunch all by himself and decided to join him. A teacher snapped a picture of the moment and it went viral. Thats what made the story great.it wasn’t stagedit was just a real moment of human kindness.
The follow up to that story was that the boy no longer ate alone; that the other kids NOW were sitting with him and patting him on the back. That boy now had friends and everything was right with the world.
Something that wasnt right was fixed, and tied up neatly with a pretty little bow of kindness and understanding.
Where were those kids prior to this child being thrust into the spotlight? We know where they were: theyre in the picture: sitting at other tables, ignoring him.
If that football player had not sat down next to that child, and if it hadnt become a national news story, that kid would still be sitting by himself today.
And its not their fault. thats the saddest part. They were clearly not taught to embrace and accept the differences of others. Not by their teachers, which would have been nice, had they thought to do so, but by their parents. I dont mean to imply that parents that dont have this conversation with their kids are bad people, but only that somewhere in between working, soccer practice, and homework, it never occurred to them to have this particular conversation. Im sure that if Christopher were typical (thats the word we use instead of normal in our world of Holland, for our developmentally delayed children), I would have not had this conversation with him either.
Christophers brothers have had many, many sleepovers over the years, obviously in front of him, and it has not gone unnoticed.
Can I have sleepover? Christopher has asked.
Sure, buddy.with whom? As a response, he would flap his arms and stim instead of answering. He didnt have an answer because he didnt have a name.
Because he didnt have a friend.
Hes never had a friend.
He just turned eleven.
And because hes had no friends.there was no one to invite.
And I dont have a solution. I dont have an answer. The reality is that I have to rely on the compassion of others to be incredibly understanding in order just to sit next to him, attempt to engage him, and make him feel included.
My son is very smart and has a great sense of humor. Every adult that meets him is drawn to him. However, because he needs the input, he will spontaneously flap his arms and make loud, guttural sounds from time to time. It draws a lot of attention in public. If youre not used to it, its normal to feel embarrassed, as you will have all the eyes in the room upon you. He will ask the same question fifty times in a short period of time (His latest is What time do you go to bed? and Whats your address?).
I typically have to tell servers in restaurants just to give him the restaurants addressas once he has a satisfactory answer, he will usually move on.
Like I said, theres no easy answer for thisat the end of the day it comes down to compassion, empathy and understanding.
But mostly empathy. Not from you guys, but from your children. As far as I know, (save for one time), Christophers classmates have never been overtly cruel to him. What they have done, however, is exclude him. And frankly, I understand this. His classmates are delayed as well, but most not as much as Christopher. They are figuring out how to interact socially every day, and because Christopher cannot engage them in a typical way, he gets left behindexcluded.
Until Thursday, I didnt know how aware he was of this divide, as he does not often talk about his peers. I should not have been surprised as he makes his wants (but not his emotional needs) very clear.but I was. Mostly, I suppose, because I had never seen him put in down on paper. For the first time, it was staring me in the face.
I guess Im sharing this because when asked to list his friends he wrote no one. Never have five letters cut so deep, and they werent even directed at me.it was just an overly simplistic statement that spoke volumes.
And because I know him so well, and because I have pretty good handle on him after raising him for eleven years, I know this disconnect makes him feel lonely, and it makes him sad.
Usually, I have to figure out what Christopher is trying to say, as his manner of speaking is very straightforward; very black and white.
This time I did not.
Its clear to me that he desperately wants to be part of the group, but his challenges make it difficult for his peers to do so.
The only solution I can come up with is to share this with you and ask that you have a conversation with your kids. Please tell them that children with special needs understand far more than we give them credit for. They notice when others exclude them. They notice when they are teased behind their back (a lot of times behind their back is right in front of them because they think the different child doesnt understand). But mostly they are very much in tune when they are treated differently from everyone else.
Trust me when I tell you this hurts them. Even if its not obvious to you and me.
For the first time ever, Im going to ask for two favor, here, on Facebook.
One: Share this post on your time line. Awareness and empathy are the only solutions I can come up with.
Two: Speak with your children. Show them the video of the Florida State Football player. The Internet is full of feel-good stories about a special needs child being included. Remember the special needs child that was put in the basketball game for the last few minutes of the final game of the season? Very recently, there was the prom king who gave his crown to a special needs classmate.
These stories are newsworthy because they are unusual. We are not used to hearing about kids being kind to those that are different and unique.
I not so naive that I think this post is going to change the world. But, if, by sharing this, I can make you think about having a conversation with your children about empathy, about going out of their way to include those that are different from everybody else, especially if it goes against the group mentality, especially if its not socially poplar (Im not so old that I dont remember that this takes bravery, socially, in the middle and high school world), then I will feel like Christophers voice has been heard.
Because even though he cant say it, he wants to be included.
He wants a voice, that, at the moment, he doesnt have.
And he needs help to find his voice.
And the child that will finally reach out to him, that will help him, that will include him, will be the kindest child I have ever had met.
And that child will be Christophers first true friend.
Thanks for listening.
As I have just leaned that this has gone viral, All of the requests I have been receiving to write Christopher letters or send a care package now make sense. This was an idea that was started by KMBZ radio personalities Dana and Scott, or one of their listeners to be precise, so this card shower is on its way.
Many of you have asked to send cards and packages to Christopher. While this is very kind, and, frankly, I thought this card shower was going to be limited to Kansas City, it is not what the original message was about. However, many of you that have sent messages through Facebook have made it clear that a lot of children want to write to Christopher, send him drawings and tell him that he has a friend out there. This is a kind act. This is a selfless act, motivated, primarily by empathy, I would imagine.
And that IS what the message is about.
In the interests of providing an outlet for the thoughtfulness of these kids, he may be reached at: Christopher Cornelius.96 Valley View DriveRockaway NJ 07866.
All this attention is a little surreal. I hope you understand that I have reached a point where I cannot possibly respond to everyone as was my original intent. The messages are in the thousands at this point. But I do answer as many as I can, and I’d like to thank everyone for sharing their stories with me and my family.
In the interests of streamlining and managing your messages more efficiently, feel free to write to me or Christopher at [emailprotected]
Thank you all for your thoughtfulness, your grace, and your kindness.