|In this photo, Ben is painting with his friend at her birthday party. They are two artists sharing a set of paint.|
Friends, I need your help.
I know that some of you have children, and some of you do not.
Some of you I know in the real world, and some of you in the virtual world only.
Right now, I need help from all of you.
I’m not one to make requests, but I need to talk to you about something that has been going on within the autism community. I realize that you may not be aware of what has been happening in the media lately. I’m the kind of person who usually avoids watching the news because I hate seeing all of the negativity in this world, but some recent events have captured my attention.
Bullying has always been an issue between children, and it has always been a concern to me as a teacher and as a parent. But, more and more often, the victims of these malicious attacks are autistic.
In Bay Village Ohio, an autistic teen was the victim of a cruel ice bucket challenge prank. A group of teens dumped a bucket containing feces and bodily fluids on an autistic young man, telling him that it was part of the fundraiser and captured it all on video, which was then plastered all over social media.
In another event that happened closer to my home in South Florida, police responded to a 911 call. When they arrived at the scene, they found a young man lying in the middle of a road. This autistic teen had been lured to a party by his so-called friends, only to be beaten senseless and then forced to walk to a spot on a road where he then collapsed. The video of their brutal attacks has also gone viral on Facebook and all over the Internet.
Friends, my son is getting older and this year he started kindergarten. I feel deep empathy for these victims and their families, and I cannot help but think that in six years time, my son will be in middle school. Many of you have children who are about the same age as mine, and these are issues that all of our children will be facing very, very soon. Others of you have children who are already confronting these very issues right now, so for you, the matter is even more urgent.
Because, as Diary of a Mom says here in her post called Selfish Diplomacy, it’s not that I want to change society. I need to change it. I need to change it for my son, because there will come a time when I will no longer be around to protect him. In six years, he will be entering the walls of middle school. One day, he will become an adult.
For, you see, autistic people, especially kids and teens, are easy targets. They are often unable to read the social cues of those around them. They have difficulty sensing sarcasm, underhanded comments, and discerning between genuine and false friendships. This makes middle school and high school, already such difficult places to navigate for the typical teen, the stuff of nightmares.
My son has such trust in others.
There are times when his excitement and joy cause him to literally leap into the air. He walks into the middle of conversations and begins talking to anyone in proximity about whatever is on his mind. He doesn’t understand the social order of things. Just last Friday, as we came into the cafeteria where the before school care meets, my kid ran right up to the fifth grade table and announced, “Guess what? Today’s the teddy bear picnic! Look at my bear!” Right now, he’s young, and new to school, so his social differences are viewed as cute or shrugged off. As he gets older, I know that kids will be less and less understanding and tolerant, unless they are taught to understand and respect these differences. And, while we will continue to work with Ben on his social skills, I have a good feeling that his unique and larger than life personality will continue to attract attention as he moves up in school. My mothering instinct worries that this will make him a target.
Because, as much as our society likes to say that it celebrates differences, the reality is that different is still something to tamp down and hide, and, at worst, ridicule and mock.
So, this is where I need your help.
If you have children, I need you to talk to them.
Teach them to accept others who are different, but don’t stop there.
Teach them that kids with special needs are still regular kids like them, and not something to shy away from or fear. Truly, we are more alike than different.
It is human nature to fear what we do not understand. The problem is that fear breeds intolerance, hatred, and, ultimately, acts of cruelty.
I know that you cannot solve all of the world’s problems, but you can help your children to practice kindness, and kindness is the first step. You can teach your children to listen to that inner voice that tells them when something is right or wrong, and to speak up when they see others behaving badly.
We all want to believe that our schools are safe places. We want to believe that the teachers are taking care of these things at school. As a teacher myself, I know that my fellow educators are doing their very best to make school a safe learning environment, but teachers cannot be the only people who teach our children these lessons about tolerance and respect. Schools have more and more academic expectations placed on them every year, which squeezes out the time needed to talk to kids about the hidden curriculum- the curriculum that teaches children how to be a good person in this world. The curriculum that, at the end of the day, truly matters the most. Please, don’t trust that the schools will take care of these conversations for you. None of us want to believe that our child could be the child who instigates these heinous acts. But, for every bully out there, there were countless more witnessing it happening and then sharing it on social media.
Teach your children how to be advocates, not just for themselves, but also for the victims who may not even be aware of the wrong that is occurring. I know that it is so hard to stand up against peers, but I know you have strong children, my friends. I know that as your children grow up, they will help stand up for my son and those like him when the time comes.
And, as one last request, I ask you to serve as an example to your children and to others. There was a time when I might have laughed when someone made a joke at the expense of a person whose behavior was a little….different. Let me tell you, when your child gets diagnosed with a disability, those jokes suddenly are no longer funny. Our society is quick to push aside those who are weak and who do not conform. Show your children where your values truly lie by modeling those behaviors of acceptance.
This summer while I was in Indiana I attended my parents’ church. As I stood and sang with the congregation, I noticed an adult woman with Down’s Syndrome worshipping in the front row, her arms swaying to the music. She was clearly attending church on her own, but I could tell that she did not mind being by herself. She clearly seemed to be enjoying her worship experience. Before my son’s autism diagnosis, I might have barely taken note of her, but as I watched her from a few rows behind, I thought about all of the people who must have come into her life over the years to help her to develop into the confident and independent adult that she was on that day. My heart swelled with hope for the future that is also possible for my son. And then, after the service, I watched as my father stopped to converse with her, and I was pleasantly surprised to realize that they were friends. Parents can be powerful examples to their children.
I know that you are already teaching your children these lessons of kindness and respect. I see examples of it every day. Recently, my son was invited to a birthday party by one of the little girls in his class. I was apprehensive about him going, but it turned out that he had an amazing time. It was a painting party, and the birthday girl wanted Ben to sit next to her. I realized that Ben would be sharing a paint set with the birthday girl, and I watched the events unfold with apprehension. My son, who is the type of artist that values messy exploration and color mixing, was sharing with a child who obviously valued a neat, pristine product. However, she never once complained when her pink paint became sloshed with grays and greens. She marveled with delight at Ben’s creation, a “pirate jungle mask” and never once questioned his artistic approach. Then, a few days later, I saw this post on her Mom's Facebook page. The mom had posted an article on her Facebook wall about understanding disabilities. Above the link, the mom wrote this comment: "I hope that my children will grow up seeing all of the abilities in people, not their "disabilities". Loving them for them and not caring what the others say, but continuing to believe in what they know is true and speak up when needed."
Tonight, as Ben was brushing his teeth, he told me that the little girl is his friend. When I asked him why she was his friend, he answered, “Because…she is super kind.”
There is evil in this world, but there is kindness too.
We are stronger than we realize, if we stand together in this.
I am counting on you, my friends, to stand with me.
To stand for Ben, and for countless other kids like him, whose differences can be gifts if we let them be.
I need you, my friends, because I cannot do this alone.
An update to the ice bucket challenge story. One brave young man did stand up and call out those who initiated that hideous prank. Read the story on fellow blogger Full Spectrum Momma's page here.