When I Questioned If My Son With Autism Could Show Kindness

I recently entered a short essay in The Mighty’s thankfulness challenge. It received a whole lot more attention than I ever dreamed it would when a representative of People magazine saw the story and called. My essay described some children who have been exceptionally kind to my son, Tate, and I thanked these kids in a public way. Tate has autism, and it’s hard for him to make friends for several reasons, one being that he just doesn’t understand how relationships work. Tate doesn’t understand social reciprocity, but he’s making some great gains due to constant and consistent teaching from home and school. A lot of that teaching has come from his peers. They’re teaching him about friendship and kindness. I wanted to spotlight those kids for their kindness to Tate.

Kindness. Most of us know what it is, even at a young age. It doesn’t have to be defined in words; it’s taught by example. Kindness doesn’t just come naturally to small children. There are always exceptions to the rule, but most children are a reflection of their upbringing. In my experience, usually, the kindest kids have the kindest parents.

unnamed (85) Tate has been blessed with many kind classmates, and a few of them have even taken a special interest in him. They eat lunch with him. They go out of their way to speak to him and consider him a real friend. If I had to describe these kids in one word I would probably pick, “kind.” So, today when I got a message from a representative of “Newton Kindness” saying two of Tate’s lunch buddies were nominated for a kindness award, I was thrilled! But as I read on, I saw that this representative also wanted to nominate Tate, and that left me slightly confused. Tate has been the recipient of his peers’ kindness but had he ever really shown kindness to them? He has autism, after all. I thought about it for a few moments. Tate is a good kid. He doesn’t make any trouble. He’s quiet. He’s not demanding or mean-spirited. But, would I use the word “kind” to describe Tate? It only took me a minute or so of pondering; I realized I’d given the word kindness a small definition. Because Tate cannot do so many things that the rest of us can, he doesn’t always show kindness the same way the rest of us do. Tate cannot show kindness by being a peer model for a classmate who’s lacking in social skills, but he’s a kind young man. He demonstrates it every day. He gives without expecting anything in return. He forgives easily when he’s been wronged, and it takes a whole lot to make him angry. His lunch buddies have described him as a good friend who likes everyone.

It’s taken Tate a lot of hard work to get where he is. If you can liken learning social skills to learning to swim, think about taking those swimming lessons in a calm, heated, indoor pool with instructors and floaties. Then think about taking those swimming lessons in a muddy, cold river with a strong current and an instructor who’s speaking a language you don’t understand. It would take so much longer to learn to swim if you didn’t have all the support. When a child with autism is put into social situations they must feel like they’re in that muddy river trying to learn to swim against that current. I’ve been on the sidelines shouting encouragement, but I must have blinked and missed the part where Tate learned to “swim.” His biggest encourager sometimes doesn’t see the little milestones.

After my lightbulb moment, I was a bit aggravated that I’d even needed a minute to ponder whether or not Tate could be described as kind, because just last month he’d shown me just what kindness really looks like. I took Tate Christmas shopping. He had less than $20 — he’d earned one dollar at a time by doing one of the only jobs he’s mastered: unloading the dishwasher. He was on a mission! He wanted to buy mistletoe and a gift for his brother, Levi. As we shopped and talked, he added to his list. He wanted to find something for his three sisters as well. Have you ever tried to shop for four people with$20? We got everything he wanted except the mistletoe. I have no idea where to find mistletoe. I quizzed him about why the mistletoe was so important. He finally revealed to me that the mistletoe was going to be his gift to his dad and me. Tate planned to put it up so we could kiss underneath it. I was so touched and tickled at the same time. It took him over two weeks of emptying that dishwasher (which is not a preferred activity) to earn enough money for those gifts, and he never batted an eye about spending it on others.

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