There you are in the grocery store, the face of kindness. My son is walking beside me as I push the cart and you walk quickly to catch up to us. You are shopping with your mom too. You call my son Tate by name and greet him enthusiastically. Tate mumbles a response, barely looking in your direction and wanders on ahead. You tell me that you go to school with him, and when I thank you for speaking to him so nicely and I try to make an excuse for his lack of interest in you, you say, “Oh, I know. That’s just how he is.” You call, “See you at school Monday, Tate!” and as you walk away, my heart sings knowing there are peers like you who genuinely like my son for who he is, autism and all.
There you are in the school auditorium, the face of consideration. My son and I are attending his sister’s school play. We find our seats in the school’s auditorium. You come, dragging your mom by the hand, and sit beside Tate. You speak to him and introduce him to your mom. I ask Tate to introduce me to his friend. He says he does not know your name. I cringe inside but smile, hoping you understand. I tell you that Tate has trouble matching faces and names. You tell me you already know that, assure me it’s OK, and politely introduce yourself and your mother to me. You try your best to engage Tate in conversation and you make a little progress, while your mom and I listen and make a little small talk over the tops of your heads. I am very impressed and thankful my son is learning social skills from peers like you.
I am at the junior high school, sitting in seventh-grade science class. I’ve been invited by your teacher to hear Tate give his presentation on the solar system. You are there, so many of you! You are the faces of encouragement. Tate stands in front of you proudly, a big smile on his face. It never occurs to him that you might not be impressed with his modified school work or the presentation his paraprofessional helped him to put together. Your presentations were much more detailed and they were done independently, but you show Tate the same courtesy you showed the peer who presented before him and the one who comes after. My heart melts knowing you respect my son and make him feel like a part of your class regardless of his abilities. I so appreciate you!
There you are in a department store, the face of compassion. I’m out shopping and feel eyes on me. I look over to see you smile, and you ask, “Are you Tate’s mom?” I say that I am and you ask me where he is. I tell you he is home. You tell me you eat lunch with Tate sometimes. I tell you how much it means to Tate’s family to know the kids at school are so kind to him. You smile and tell me it is fun to eat lunch with Tate. You add that you have learned more from being Tate’s friend than he has learned from you. I ponder this, as I know Tate is not what most kids would consider “fun,” and he is unable to do the classwork that the rest of you can do. He is hard to converse with, sometimes seeming rude. He does not understand social cues, and he performs below grade level in every subject. But you know that. You know how he struggles to understand friendship yet how much he needs friends. You know how he struggles to process language, especially when it is spoken quickly. You are willing to be the kind of friend a kid with autism needs, a friend who has to give more than they receive, a friend who has to slow down and give Tate time to process before he can respond. And you are OK with that. My heart swells with gratitude.
This evening I need to find the face of understanding. We have come to a music program. Tate is to sing with his classmates. I hoped you would be here at the entrance to the school, and I see you walking in right ahead of us. I stop you and ask you if you know where Tate should go to find his group. You tell me you know exactly where to go and you say, “Come on Tate. Follow me.” I call to you as you disappear into the crowd, “Thank you!” I feel blessed and relieved to be a part of this community where I can find these willing faces all around us.
I see you at a school picnic, the faces of acceptance. Tate’s class voted and chose to go fishing at a lake as their end-of-the-year event. We considered skipping it because Tate is not interested in fishing at all. He does not like to get dirty, and I figure he will most likely spend the evening asking us how much longer we have to stay. We decided he should go, and as our family pulls up to the lake, several of you approach our van, calling Tate’s name and asking him to hurry and join you. He says, “My friends are here.” He follows you to the gathering, and we bring up the rear. My heart smiles at the knowledge that my son has friends. He has friends, and he is accepted, autism and all.
As a part of the autism community, I often hear of prejudice, intolerance, hate and bullying. We’ve seen very few of those things in my son’s life. Perhaps it is because we have been open about his autism diagnosis since kindergarten. Perhaps it is because we made sure his classmates were educated about autism. Perhaps it is because of the lunch buddy program and the other social coaching programs his peers have participated in with him. Perhaps it is because we live in a small town and a close-knit community. Perhaps we just got lucky and my son has a class of exceptionally caring peers whose parents have taught them about friendship, kindness, consideration, encouragement, respect, compassion, understanding and acceptance. Perhaps it is a combination of all of these things.