Bob Cornelius scanned his 11-year-old son’s classroom during “back-to-school night” last week, hoping to spot his son’s colorful project hanging on the wall.
On a sheet of paper, the sixth-grade students were asked to list their favorite food, TV show, what they want to be when they grow up, among other things.
He grinned as he read some of his son’s responses.
But when he got home, he took a closer at a photo he snapped of the project, and he noticed something heartbreaking.
When his son, Christopher, was asked to fill out who some of his friends are, the boy wrote, “No one.”
Those two words stung.
Here is his Facebook post:
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 stare instead of answering. 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 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, 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.
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 in down on paper. 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 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 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 it’s not socially poplar (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.
He will be Charlie Bucket.
And that child will be Christopher’s first true friend.
Thanks for listening.
Bob’s words are a reminder to us all to treat others with respect and dignity even when we don’t understand what they are going through.
Share and spread his message today.
Here is the video of the Florida State football player Bob referenced: