We all want our kids to have friends.
Friends who are accepting of who they are. Friends who share a common bond. Friends who laugh with them. Friends who stick up for them.
Friends who “get” them.
For parents of kids with autism, our children finding a real friend is not something we take for granted. The hope that our child will find at least one real friend (and the fear that he won’t) is what keeps us up at night. The potential that our child will be bullied or made fun of, simply because they are “different,” keeps us up at night. The dream that one kid will see how magnificent our child is, that one kid will stick up for them, that one kid will want to play with them, that one kid will just “get” them…that dream also keeps us up at night.
A few days ago, a friend of mine posted something on Facebook that had a profound impact on me. I haven’t been able to stop thinking about it. I read it the first time, and I cried. I read it again, and again, and again, and I cried each time. I thought about it in the car, and cried again. (Wow, I really sound like a joy to be around, don’t I?) They were happy tears. Tears of hope. I wrote my friend a note, asking her if I could share it on my blog. Because if this story gave me hope and made me realize that true friendship is possible for Easton, then it needs to be shared. If one parent out there reads this and gains hope that they didn’t have before, it was worth sharing.
So, thank you, Jenn. Your story made a difference for me. It will make a difference for many. This, the story of the courageous 4th grade boy in the Wal-Mart toy aisle who changed everything:
“Yesterday, I was at Wal-Mart browsing in the toy section looking for something for my Gabe. We celebrated his 10th birthday last night with a Glow Party at Pump It Up. It sounded like a fabulous idea and it was really cool, except for one thing – it was harder to see the kids under the glowing and blinking lights, making it harder to see Gabe who would not wear any of the Glow bracelets. Ronny managed to get a glow bracelet on one of his ankles so we could track his movements and I asked everyone at the party to keep an eye out for Gabe so we didn’t lose him. It was very sweet to hear the kids shout out, “There’s Gabe” from time to time. I’m happy to report that we didn’t lose him, although he did try to shake us off his trail a few times, we prevailed. Anyway, I was checking out the super hero toys at Wal-Mart and I felt someone looking at me from down the aisle. I turned to find the sweet, bright face of a 4th grader from Gabe’s school. I smiled at him and he said, “Hi. I know you. I remember you.” I said, “I remember you too.” A coworker and I spoke to his class the week before about the challenges of Autism and Aspergers and also about bullying. He was an active participant in the presentation, raising his hand to answer questions and also sharing his thoughts about bullying. He smiled at me and then said, “How is Gabe?” My smile grew bigger and I said, “Good, he is doing really good. We are actually celebrating his birthday tonight so I’m here looking at the toys.” He said, “He likes Iron Man.” My face lit up and I felt warm tears start to form a small army behind my eyes because he remembered. I started off the presentation asking the students if they liked pizza, goldfish crackers, fruit snacks, spaghetti, Iron Man, Toy Story, swimming, playing outside, hanging upside down, and most of the classroom responded with a resounding yes. I then told them that those are things that my son Gabe likes and I said, “Isn’t it amazing that you like 8 or 9 of the same things as my son, that you have 8 or 9 things in common with a boy who has never spoken a word in his life and who has autism? You are alike in ways you didn’t even know, isn’t that cool?” And the students nodded their heads and said yes. The point we were trying to get across was that too many times the focus is on how children with disabilities are different from non-disabled children, and we forget how they are alike. People forget to look at children with disabilities as children first who have likes and dislikes, strengths and weaknesses, who have favorite hobbies and activities just like non-disabled children do. Instead, the differences are highlighted and scrutinized and tend to get in the way. But with this young boy, he remembered what I said. He remembered that Gabe likes Iron Man. We smiled at each other as I fought back the tears and then he said, “Well, will you tell Gabe happy birthday from me?” I noticed how he asked me this question with purpose behind his words telling me that it mattered to him. He really wanted me to tell Gabe happy birthday from him. I told him I would and he grinned and turned to go.
I remained frozen staring at an Iron Man figurine taking quick, small breaths trying not to cry. I was completely moved by the conversation I just had with a 4th grader. As I was trying to get myself together, I heard a small, “Hey?” I turned to find the bright-eyed boy looking at me again. Before I could say anything to him, he said, “Ah, I’d play with Gabe, sometime.” That was it – let the tears fall. I said OK as he turned to go and I watched him disappear around the corner. I almost ran after him to hug him, but that might have been a little scary and possibly inappropriate. I thought about following him so he could lead me to the parent or adult figure he was with and then I could tell him or her how thoughtful their son was. I probably should have done that, but I was short on time so instead I just sobbed in the super hero aisle with Iron Man, Spiderman and the Hulk offering me little support. The Hulk even looked angry at me. All it took was two minutes for this young boy to touch my heart in a deep, yet also painful way, and I was so grateful for his words.
Do you know how many times I’ve heard parents say things like: My son/daughter has no real friends. I just wish my son/daughter had one real friend. I know my son/daughter could be a friend to someone if they gave him or her a chance. Too many times to count. Do you know how many times I’ve had those kinds of thoughts about my own son? Too many times to count. I understand the importance of strong friendships and relationships and support in this world, and to think that my son might never experience the love, acceptance and support that comes from a real friend because of what he isn’t able to give to a friendship breaks my heart over and over again. And yet, I still hope, and for very good reason. I risk hoping because of people like this sweet 4th grader at Wal-Mart who heard what I said loud and clear. He heard me when I pointed out how my son and the students were alike even though my son communicates in a completely different way and behaves differently. He heard my coworker and I say that everyone, no matter what the disability, deserves respect and friendship. He heard us when we said that they, the 4th graders, could make a huge difference in the lives of children with disabilities if they take a chance and try to get to know them, if they try to understand and be a friend, if they stand up to bullying when they see it. What this young boy heard that day spoke directly to my heart. He reinforced my belief that hope is a good thing, and that it’s worth the risk. Will my son ever have a ‘real friend’, I don’t know, but the dream is there, and it came to life at Wal-Mart in the super hero section where a little boy showed more strength, courage and compassion than any super hero I’ve ever seen.”
And THAT, my friends, is why we don’t lose hope.
Thank you, Jenn, for sharing this story and allowing me to share it as well.
Thank you, Gabe, for being you.
And thank you, sweet 4th grade boy that I’ve never met. You are proof that one kid with a lot of character and a big heart can be an inspiration.
You have given me hope.