For those of you who don't 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 didn't 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 didn't know the boy was on the autistic spectrum when he sat down with him...he 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. That's what made the story great....it wasn't staged...it 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",B and everything was right with the world.
Something that wasn't right was fixed, and tied up neatly with a pretty little bow of kindness and understanding.
But in my head, I asked "Where were those kids prior to this child being thrust into the spotlight? We know where they were: they're in the picture: sitting at other tables, ignoring him.
If that football player had not sat down next to that child, and if it hadn't become a national news story, that kid would still be sitting by himself today.
And it's not their fault.... that's 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 don't mean to imply that parents that don't 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. I'm sure that if Christopher were typical (that's 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.
Christopher's 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 answeting. He didn't have an answer because he didn't have a name.
Because he didn't have a friend.
He's never had a "real" friend.
He just turned eleven.
And because he's had no friends....there was no one to invite.
And I don't have a solution. I don't 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 you're not used to it, it's 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 "What's your addtess?").
I typically have to tell servers in restaurants just to give him the restaurant's address...as once he has a satisfactory answer, he will usually move on.
Like I said, there's no easy answer for this...at 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), Christopher's classmates have never been overtly cruel to him. What they have done, however, on some level, is to 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 behind...excluded, in his eyes.
Until Thursday, I didn't 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 it down on paper. But for the first time, it was staring at me in the face.
I guess I'm sharing this because when asked to list his friends he wrote "no one". Never have five letters cut so deep, and they weren't 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 feel 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.
It's clear to me that he desperately wants to be part of the group, but his challenges make it difficult for his peers to include him.
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 doesn't 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 it's not obvious to you and me.
For the first time ever, I'm going to ask for two favors, here, on Facebook.
One: Share this post on your timeline. 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 videos just might make them aware of just how awesome it is to include those who are a little bit different. And I mean this for all children. Not just those that are "diagnosed", but for every child.
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 would love to see us get to the point where this sort of behavior is the norm, not the newsworthy exception.
I am 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 it's not socially popular (I'm not so old that I don't remember that this takes bravery...bravery to break from the confines of whet your friends think is cool in the middle and high school worlds), then I will feel like Christopher's voice has been heard.
Because even though he can't say it, he wants to be included.
He wants a voice, that, at the moment, he doesn't 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: the child that does the right thing by going above and beyond.
And that child will be Christopher's first true friend.
And I will be forever grateful.
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 whay 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 Chistopher, send him drawimgs 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 Drive...Rockaway 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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
Thank you all for your thoughtfulness, your grace, and your kindness.
Cliff Hieronymus Bob - I read this first thing this morning and have not been able to get it off my mind today. Amy read it and cried for an hour. We plan to read it with our kids tonight and build it into our daily routine to be actively aware and engaged. Thank you for taking the time to share.
Bob Cornelius So my good friend Nancy Chartrand, the best public relations person in Kansas City, shared this post and has informed my that the number one radio station wants to interview me on air today at 5:15 EST. I checked, and they do have an app that you can download where I'm sure you can hear it. Type in KMBZ 98.1. The show is called Dana and Parks.
Rob Katsel There have been a number of times in my life I have seen friends in the news unexpectedly and I can honestly say I have never been prouder to say 'yes he is my friend and fraternity brother'. So simple a message that people too often choose not to hear, well done brother!