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To the Classmates Who Sign Up to Sit With My Son at Lunch

My son Tate has autism. He’s 13 and in the seventh grade. Tate performs at a grade level far below his peers, academically and socially. I could and should write thank you notes often to each and every one of the teachers and staff involved in Tate’s individualized education. I definitely don’t say it enough. Today, however, I am going to say “Thank you” to the seventh grade class at Baldwin City Junior High School.

There are advantages to living in a small town sometimes. Tate will graduate with a class of approximately 100 students — he began kindergarten with about 20 of them. He had the same kids in his class through third grade. And living in a small town has produced opportunities for us that many families of a special needs child wouldn’t have. I knew all of Tate’s teachers and many of the parents and children. I was often in the classroom and able to educate Tate’s classmates about autism and Tate’s differences. I wanted full disclosure and often asked that the privacy policy be ignored. I talked openly about Tate’s disability and urged teachers to do the same.

From the beginning Tate’s been treated with respect and kindness. His classmates could see he needed help with many things, and there were always lots of willing helpers available. At the end of their first grade year, I thanked the children for being such good friends to Tate and asked them to promise me they would be friends all the way through high school — they’ve kept their promise thus far.

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For five years Tate has had a lunch buddy program so he can receive social instruction from an adult coach while surrounded by peers. In elementary school, students had a chance to sign up to be a part of it with their parents’ permission. There was always a waiting list and never a lack of enthusiasm for eating lunch with Tate. The program has evolved somewhat. Now, for part of the week, Tate sits at a table with peers and no adult. Other days he invites a friend or two to eat with him and a teacher at a smaller table so he can work on social skills. Rarely does a student ask for a rain check. If Tate calls, they answer!

So many children with special needs have to worry about bullies. So many children with special needs are lonely or forgotten. Tate has never been bullied — not even once that I am aware of — and many of his peers call him “friend,” although Tate doesn’t often reciprocate their kindnesses. Tate’s understanding of social skills and reciprocity is greatly lacking. His peers know it, and they accept it. They give, asking nothing in return. They include Tate whenever possible. They help him with tasks that are difficult for him. They teach him and encourage him. They make him feel like one of “the guys.” It doesn’t matter that he comes in last in all the races. I’ve heard them cheer as if he’s crossed the finish line in record time! It doesn’t matter if his presentation is short and simple compared to theirs; they’re excited to see Tate’s achievements even when they’re small.

They treat Tate like he’s a valued member of their class, an equal. For this, I thank them. I thank these students for being kind to Tate and for making his life easier. I thank these students for making my life easier. I don’t have to worry or wonder about Tate while he’s at school because he has friends who look out for him. Thank You Baldwin Bulldogs, class of 2020.

The Mighty is celebrating the people we don’t thank enough. If you’d like to participate, please submit a 400- to 800-word thank you note along with a photo and 1-2 sentence bio to [email protected].