How to Be a Dad

How to Be a Dad

This Dad Gets It

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The following was posted on Facebook and shared into my feed last night. It sums up something I’ve been going through with my older son. Though Finn isn’t autistic he is a special brand of human: sensitive, brilliant, quirky, analytical, impulsive, hilarious. And this boy, below, seems like a brother from another mother.

But I worry, as most of us do, about how my son and his unique gifts are perceived. I worry that people will misunderstand or shy away from him because he’s unkempt and unrestrained in some ways. But I have a feeling Christopher and Finn would get along thick as thieves. Hilarious, obsessively questioning boys who play hard and fast.

Christopher’s dad speaks for me and I will back him up any way I can, from wherever I am. How about a playdate?

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“No One”:

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 wasnt 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 we’re sitting with him and patting him on the back. That boy now had “friends” 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.

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 particlar 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 friend.

Ever.

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 exclue 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 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 straightfoward; 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 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 ‘diffetent’ 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, socially, in the middle and high school world), 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 I have ever had met.

And that child will be Christopher’s first true friend.

Thanks for listening.

Sincerely,

Christopher’s Dad”

3 Comments

3 Responses to “This Dad Gets It”

  1. Ephena says:

    I was a Christopher.

    Thank you.

  2. Sarah says:

    Check out the Special Olympic Unified Sports program, which is gaining strength in many states. My nephew is a high school senior at Orono HS in MN where this program is very strong. It is having a huge impact on every child in the school – special needs and not. It is an athletic league where they join regular and special needs kids together on one team. Everyone has a blast. Students are the coaches. Just an amazing program. http://specialolympicsminnesota.org/programs/projectunify/unified-sports-all-ages/

  3. sam-c says:

    I enjoyed this post, and I hope that it helps to remind parents of things they should work on with their children.
    I hope good comes from it. “Can’t we all just get along?”

    Also, I hope that parents too, can learn to have empathy for all kids and situations, and realize that ‘the other kids’ may have their own struggles too and are working to grow into their personalities.

    I have a son in 3rd grade. He’s very smart, and he started talking at a very early age. He has (what seems like to me) a photographic memory. Memorizing makes and models of cars at the age of 3 and calling them out in parking lots, on the road, etc. It was very entertaining and a very good way to pass the time. He notices everything. He likes to point out typos in books/ homework.

    He is incredibly literal and one time when he was almost 2, I asked him “how did you sleep?” he replied “in jammies”…..
    He’s been picked on before himself, (ie, tomatoes thrown on him at summer soccer camp) and he would never pick on someone, or intentionally hurt someone’s feelings.

    However, he says what is on his mind and doesn’t really have a filter. He is incredibly literal and many times socially awkward.

    So to clarify this long winded point I am trying to make.

    A mom I know vague-booked (vague-Facebooked) about her daughter Elsa*, who was working on her reading abilities in second grade, and mom called out a comment from one of her child’s classmates about ‘slow-readers’ She praised her daughter for being so brave and not letting comments like that about slow-readers get her down.

    This resulted in mama-bear pitchforks and another mother at the school calling for a ‘smack down’ (actual words) because cruelty like that ‘isn’t tolerated at our school’

    My heart dropped. I knew my son very well and thought that he could have been the one to make this comment about ‘slow readers’.
    I asked him about the situation. He said, “yes, I was talking to Timothy* at recess today, and said that I have been paired with slower readers in reading groups the first few weeks”
    I asked him if he had been paired up with Elsa* and he said “yes, I have been paired up with Elsa* for reading groups. I told her that her reading is really improving and she must be working hard.”

    It is disappointing that this mom would take to facebook to vaguebook about it, rather than say something the other parent, or the teacher if she was concerned.

    Even after talking to my son about the ‘situation,’ he still didn’t get it. In his mind he was making an observation. (Did I mention he was literal?)

    Sure, you can forgive a toddler for saying something awkward “look at the fat man, mommy”
    But you can’t forgive a 7 year old that is still trying to learn how to act in different social dynamics? No matter how many times I try to tell him, he is still trying to learn…..
    SO don’t assume that the ‘other kids’ and their parents have given up on trying to be kind….

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