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- May 02, 2016
- Jessie Tucker Mitchell
Every weekday morning, I walk my six year old son to his classroom, and every morning he expects to see his beloved teacher, Ms. S, waiting for him. Not only does Fletcher, who has autism and is in a special needs class, appreciate routine and predictability; he also simply loves his teacher and looks forward to seeing her. It’s the perfect start to his day, and I appreciate that I can say goodbye to him knowing he is happy.
One morning, Fletcher and I reached the classroom to find it empty, no teacher in sight. Fletcher froze in the doorway, a look of surprise and then terror on his face. I could tell by the way his eyes darted around the room, and the way he started moving his mouth without making a sound, that he was starting to panic – and sure enough, seconds later, the tears came. They weren’t just a few sniffles, either; these were the loud, gulping sobs of someone whose world was suddenly distorted, unrecognizable. I tried to talk him out of his meltdown, to assure him that Ms. S most definitely would be back soon, but he was too distraught to hear me. All around us, the halls filled with students, pouring out of the cafeteria and heading toward class, most of them staring at us. Teachers and assistants peeked out of their classrooms and smiled sympathetically. I felt embarrassed, the center of unwanted attention, because I could not soothe my own child.
Then, out of the mob of people, pushing his way toward us, came a little boy about Fletcher’s age. He was not in Fletcher’s class; I had never seen him before. His eyes were fixed on my crying son, and I mentally prepared myself for the questions I just knew he would ask me: “Are you his mom? Why is he crying? Can’t you make him feel better?” Children, less concerned about manners than adults, had been asking me such questions for years, but I never knew how to answer except with complete honesty: “Yes, I’m his mom; he’s crying because he’s sad; and no, no matter what I do, I can’t make his hurt go away.”
However, this little boy surprised me. He did not seem to notice or care that I was the mother and should have been in control. Instead, he put his arm around Fletcher, patted his shoulder, and said, “Hey Fletcher, it’s okay. It’s all going to be okay.”
In an instant, Fletcher stopped crying. I was shocked. This never happens. He looked at the boy with red, wet eyes, and I could not tell if he recognized him or not, but they must have interacted at some point during first grade art or music. Fletcher blinked several times, still looking at the boy, then slowly wiped his tears and murmured, “Okay.”
The boy patted his shoulder one last time, then turned and disappeared into the crowd. Finally finding my voice, I called after him, “Thank you!” But he was gone, and with the noise and commotion surrounding us, he could not have heard me anyway.
This boy, with the great compassion he showed my son, touched me in a way I cannot explain. He could not have known Fletcher that well; he doubtlessly had at least a dozen other friends to see, and he could have passed by us without feeling any obligation to comfort my child whatsoever. But instead, something inside him, doubtlessly some little nudge from God, made him take thirty seconds from his morning to sooth my son. And his actions are still having an impact on me now, making me feel ever hopeful for my son’s future.
Fletcher attends a school where special needs kids mingle with “regular” kids. Studies show that autistic children gain immensely from this interaction, and I believe this is true: They learn appropriate social behaviors, they learn how to play, they prepare themselves for “real world living.” Even if they only spend an hour a day on the playground together, or thirty minutes in the gym, they benefit immeasurably from this interaction.
But then, so do the neurotypical children.
By interacting with kids like Fletcher every day, they learn not to be afraid of someone who is different. They learn not to bully them. They learn to reach out to them, to include them in every activity, to see the world as a place where everyone – people of all abilities – should have their own place and should feel that they belong. They learn to see special needs kids as no less human than they are. They learn to see Fletcher as God wants them to: as another wondrous creation, certainly puzzling and mysterious, but also a blessing to know and to call a friend. I praise God for these children, and for the parents who want their sons and daughters to grow up feeling an amazing compassion for our special needs kids.