When Jonathan began school I was concerned with how he would be received by his peers. His lack of verbal and social skills made it difficult for him as well as his classmates. Given how little was known about autism at the time, I wondered if his classmates had questions or even understood what the word “autism” meant. I decided maybe the best approach was to meet that apprehension head on. So one day, while Jonathan was at speech, I met with his class.
Young children can be a remarkable audience and as I quickly discovered, an inquisitive one as well. After talking with them about autism and Jonathan, I asked if there were any questions. Silence met my ears. They were going to need a little encouragement. So their teacher took the lead and asked the first question. Honestly, I don’t recall the question, but I do remember several hands going up once she opened the door.
“Why does Jonathan cover his ears sometimes?”
“Does Jonathan know he’s autistic?”
“Why can’t he talk?”
“Why doesn’t he look at me when I’m talking to him?”
Each question led to some empowering moments for all of us.
As Jonathan moved from grade to grade, I would meet with his class and encourage his classmates to ask me anything and that there were no wrong questions. As they progressed in age, the questions were sometimes harder for me to answer.
“Are you sad that Jonathan has autism?”
“Do you wish Jonathan could talk?”
“How do you know what he wants or how he feels?”
It led to some very frank and vulnerable moments for us all. I must say, his classmates seemed to rally around both of us. They would offer up suggestions or ideas to help the both of us. Even when Jonathan struggled and sometimes acted out, they recognized it for what it was: autism having a rough day. Accepting what they didn’t understand because Jonathan was a classmate and a friend.
Then one year came a question I never anticipated. Jonathan was in 3rd grade and true to form, I made my classroom visit. Several of the students had been with Jonathan since kindergarten and thus were seasoned autism advocates. We had quite an engaging discussion, which I had to cut short as Jonathan returned from OT. As I turned to leave, one of his classmates approached me. He had only known Jonathan for about two years, and was always relatively quiet whenever we had our conversations, but I could tell there was something on his mind. So I asked his teacher if we could have a moment out in the hallway.
As we sat on the bench outside his classroom, I reminded him that he could ask me anything because any question about Jonathan was one I would always be happy to answer. He looked me straight in the eyes and asked:
“Does Jonathan know I’m black?”
At first I wasn’t sure if I heard him correctly and asked him to repeat himself, which he did. Honestly, I wasn’t quite sure how to answer, so I inquired about the reason for his question. His response is one to this day I will never forget: “Because Jonathan treats everyone exactly the same.”
Talk about a profound moment! I looked at him and I said, “Jonathan knows you by your name. Yes, he recognizes the color of your skin, but you could be any color and it really wouldn’t make any difference to him. It’s just a way for him to recognize you. He responds to your name, your face and your friendship.” He gave me the biggest smile and said “Wouldn’t it be great if everybody had autism?”. Then he added, “Don’t worry, I’ll watch out for Jonathan because he’s my friend”.
Fast forward 4 years later. It was my first day as a temp Special Education Assistant at Jonathan’s middle school of all places. Needless to say I was nervous, especially since I was told I would be with a very challenging student who had already had several SEA’s. As we were walking down the hall getting acquainted, I heard someone call my name. It was Jonathan’s friend from elementary school. After greeting me with a big hug he asked why I was there. After informing him, he turned to the student I was with and said “Nobody messes with Jonathan and nobody messes with Ms. J”. True to his word there he was, still watching out for Jonathan and now me as well. What a fabulous way to start my new job and a wonderful reminder of unwavering friendship.
Autism has given me some beautiful moments, ones I would have never experienced without autism’s presence. Moments that have encouraged me, supported me and restored my faith. This one in particular is one of my favorites. But I often wonder, do those with autism possess a unique quality that allows them a view beyond the surface, one that transcends prejudice? Is it Jonathan or autism that views through a different lens, one that allows them to see what matters most-the heart and soul of every individual they meet? I’d like to think it’s both. In the end, the answer doesn’t really matter, but those beautiful moments do. I’m reminded of it every time Jonathan and autism meet a new face.
There will always be questions, opinions and theories about autism, but I believe one of the best came from Jonathan’s friend. Imagine what this world would be like if we could all view it with a little piece of autism in each and every one of us.