Okay, I confess. I was late getting my daughter Katie to school. It happens more times than I care to admit. She should be taking the bus, but don’t get me started on that topic. I tell myself most people don’t need to drive their kids to another school district, in heinous morning commute traffic, just to find an appropriate classroom. Plus it was raining—which for some reason makes many commuters forget how to drive. But really, that’s no excuse. I should have gotten up earlier, skipped my shower, or….
I’m fairly certain sending Katie to school in her PJs would be frowned upon, even in a special needs classroom.
On this particular day I’m happy we were late. As we cut through the parking lot on the way to Katie’s classroom, a group of kids straggled out and lined up in front of the school just as the sun broke through the clouds. They were probably first graders and clearly going on a field trip. Their excited chatter mingled with the rainbow-hued drizzle.
This type of scene used to make me sad because like most parents, I’d taken it for granted that friends and conversation would be part of my daughter’s life. But friends and conversation are not things that come easily to an autistic eight-year-old. In my daughter’s case, they haven’t come yet, but on that morning, as I listened to the children’s laughter, I had (almost) stopped fearing they would never come at all.
Katie was splashing her way through puddles and commenting on her pink leopard-spotted rain boots. (It’s a new milestone, and a necessary step, but still a long way from actual conversation.) We were approaching the covered entry when I heard a child say, “Hey, look. That’s Katie.” Out of the corner of my eye, I saw a cluster of children turn. “Hi, Katie” they yelled across the parking lot, waving frantically.
I looked down at my daughter and said, “You have friends,” a note of surprise and wonder coloring my voice. She smiled slyly as the kids continued to yell greetings and wave. “What do you say?”
“Hi,” she said and waved to the kids as if it were no big deal.
Oh, but it is. It’s a very big deal. No one required those children to say hi. No one expected them to greet my daughter. If they had continued talking and ignored Katie as she walked with me, no one would have thought twice of it, least of all me. Yet they made the effort to reach out. I don’t know what their teacher has taught them about tolerance and acceptance, but whatever it was, she’s earned my respect and thanks. I’m sure the parents deserve credit as well. The school works hard to be inclusive, but still, what these children did blew my mind.
As a parent, I’ve tried to instill in my daughter the belief that her autism is a difference rather than a deficit. It’s a concept my family sometimes struggles with. But those first graders, they got it. They looked past the autism and saw my daughter as a person, someone worthy of friendship. As any parent of a child on the spectrum can tell you, that’s no small thing.
I will be forever grateful to those children, Katie’s first friends. Wouldn’t it be great if everyone exhibited such compassion and acceptance? That’s the world I want for my daughter, and for all of us.
Today, on Autism Awareness Day, pledge to fully accept rather than merely tolerate individuals with autism. If a first grader can do it, why can’t you?
Until next time,