How to Make 500 Teenagers Understand Autism in 10 Minutes

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It had been a tough couple of days.

I was ready to pack my son, Kirby, up and get the heck out of there.

Kirb had pushed me to the edge of fear and patience, and I was just done.

The scene was Boy Scout Camp Horseshoe, where Kirby and some of his buddies from an all-autism troop, BSA Troop 77 Malvern, Pennsylvania, were attending a few days of summer camp with their dads and alongside their neuro-typical brother Scouts. We weren’t doing the whole week, but we had a half dozen boys with autism sleeping in tents for four days on 1200 acres of wooded hillside encircled by the Octoraro Creek.

Kirby had “eloped” (run away) several times during our visit, and the last time he was missing for two hours. He’s too fast for me or any of the other dads to catch when he runs, and he just wasn’t listening. He’d been good for a long time. I was caught by surprise. I’d put on miles of trotting through woods, down trails and over roads looking for him. In the end of each of these elopements, one of the neuro-typical kids would find him and reunite us. It all worked out, but I was burnt out.

But this has been our experience partnering these two troops — the “typical” guys in Troop 7 look out for their brothers in Troop 77. And they can do it in a way we dads cannot. They have the energy, the speed and the stamina to look after a peer with autism that we dads just don’t have anymore. It makes us dads all feel old and inadequate, but that’s for another blog somewhere that whiny middle-age men read to commiserate. The point is, mixing up the typical and Scouts with autism works just like mixing the kids up in school classrooms does. The kids with autism can model typical behaviors and the typical kids become sensitive and usually it brings out the best in them as big brothers and sisters.

At Camp Horseshoe, every morning a Scoutmaster stands up and shares a “big idea” with the assembled 500 Scouts and adult leaders. No one wanted to do one the last day of the week, and I was “encouraged” to stand up and talk about autism. OK, I’m game.

My message that morning was simple:

  • I explained a bit about autism and how much it was a “boy’s issue” and noted that the Boy Scouts of America is primarily a boy’s organization.
  • I explained how proud and lucky we were to have the guys in Troop 7 to be the big brothers of our boys in Troop 77 and how we were only able to take the boys with autism  swimming in the ocean or camping in the woods because of the help and watchful eyes of the boys in Troop 7.
  • I explained that friendship and support were important to kids with autism, even though they were different and seemed less social.
  • And in the end, I pointed out that being a good friend to the Scouts with autism ties into the Scout Law which goes like this: “A Scout is trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly, courteous, kind, obedient, cheerful, thrifty, brave, clean and reverent.”

It was a short speech. It didn’t last much more than five minutes including some breaks for clapping and getting the guys of the two troops to stand up to be seen.

Over the next 48 hours, I learned that this five minutes profoundly changed the nature of 500 kids. A proverbial pebble in the pond.

The first thing that happened was that the boys of Troop 7 were visibly proud that they’d been called out for being such great big brothers to the guys in 77.

And then, as the boys of Troop 77 maneuvered around camp that day, they were no longer invisible. Scouts of all stripes stopped to say hello and to shake a hand. The boys started to hold their heads higher.

That afternoon was the camp wide “Paul Bunyan Contest” where all of the troops in camp compete in stuff like climbing, sawing huge logs, making giant pancakes over a campfire and tug-of-war. Magically through the whole event, boys and troops created positive experiences for the Scouts with autism. No one told anyone to do this; they just became aware and did compassionate acts of kindness. At the end, a giant demonstration tug-of-war was staged and somehow the rag tag band of just five Scouts with autism bested the top tug-of-war troop.

This was the final day at camp and parents and siblings and relatives were everywhere. They’d come to witness the Paul Bunyan games and also the final troop marching on the parade grounds that evening. The troop marching each evening at Horseshoe is a camp tradition that’s survived since the first year in 1928. It’s competitive, and there’s a trophy awarded each day of camp for the troop with the best form.

Our brothers in Troop 7 were in a heated tie with their arch rivals of BSA Troop 14 from West Chester, Pennsylvania, on this final day. The tie would be decided tonight in front of all the parents, grandparents, brother, sisters. All week the boys with autism had watched the marching but had not wanted to participate, being content on the sidelines. Possibly it was the changed attitudes and behaviors all day at camp or possibly it was a whim, but the boys with autism announced to us dads that tonight they were going to march. Oh boy, here we go…

As a part of the evening tradition, the troops “call out” details about their troop’s disposition to the adult leaders across the field. How would we get that done? Our guys seldom said anything in more than a whisper if at all. And marching in formation? Come on.

As we dads were ruminating and musing out loud in camp about how to get Troop 77 marching that night, the boys of Troop 7 overheard us. They decided they could help. One of their Senior Patrol Leaders — the same guy that “calls cadence” for their march and who would be crucial to their besting their rivals in Troop 14 — would stand with the boys with autism during “call out” and help them before ducking out and sprinting back to his own duties with Troop 7.

OK, well, here we were — two dads and five Scouts with autism on the parade field and the rest of the Troop 77 dads on the line with the other adult leaders across the field. The boys were a motley looking group who struggled to stand still, but they were there ,and one could tell they were excited and proud.

Call out went just as planned with the Senior Patrol Leader coaching one of our more outspoken boys.

And then the marching started. We were set to go last so we wouldn’t disrupt the competitive troops ahead of us. And when the time came, we marched the route around the parade fields. A disorganized group by any measure, but the boys had their heads held high.

At the halfway point, the applause started. The camp was full of visitors. I wondered if the boys could keep it together with the uproar. They did. Their corners were rounded, and they were out of step, but they were there on the field with everyone else.

As we marched down the line of the adult leaders standing at attention, there was more than one tear shed, and when we passed the head of camp and the boys attempted a disorganized lopsided salute, a lot of us were having trouble seeing through wet eyes.

The boys marched off the field into a mass of new brothers from many troops who all cheered them, patted backs and shook hands.

That’d be a great story right there, but it got better.

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That night, the boys, parent, and visitors of Troop 7 and Troop 77 convened. There was a buzz, the boys of Troop 7 were sure they’d won marching and broken the tie with Troop 14. The annual feast was being enjoyed by scouts and visitors alike. And during that dinner an unusual thing happened.

One of the camp staff came down the walk. He was preceded by a Troop 7 Scout who heralded his forthcoming arrival to me. The boys worry when camp staff come around the sites, it creates a buzz. “Mr Wurts, Alex is coming down and he wants to talk to you.” And as Alex turned up, I noticed Scouts and adult leaders had a wary eye on the proceedings. Apparently so did Alex; he asked me to step up the path to talk in private.

What Alex told me blew me away.

He said the boys of Troop 7 had not won marching that night. This surprised me, as marching results are kept as secret as winners of The Oscars. I’m sure I looked perplexed. I’m new to Scouting, but I knew this was unprecedented. “So why are you telling me this?” I asked.

Alex then explained: Troop 7’s arch rivals, Troop 14, had won marching that night. They were the top of the heap for the week. But the “arch rival” boys of Troop 14 had come to the camp leadership and asked to be allowed to forfeit their win, leaving the rival tie behind. They said they’d like to present the marching award to the boys of Troop 77 for marching as best they could. Alex understood that kids with autism often don’t do well with surprises, and he wanted to tell me camp leadership had approved this unprecedented request and this would go down at breakfast the next morning. Wow. OK. Well then…

As I walked back into camp, all eyes were on me and Scoutmaster Rapp gave me a “come hither” look so I went over to chat with him. He asked about what Alex had wanted, and I told him in confidence. With a nod and a smile, he suggested that I also bring the two Senior Patrol Leaders of Troop 7 into the confidence. I spoke to them together and while they were visibly sad about losing, they were also visibly happy for their brothers in Troop 77.

And that’d be a great story right there, but it gets better so I’ll tell you some more…

The next morning at breakfast in the dining hall, the usual last breakfast excitement and chaos was unfolding. Troop 7 and their arch rivals from Troop 14 were chanting at each other with the typical valor of arch rivals. It was serious stuff suitable for a longstanding rivalry.

At awards time, the marching trophy award was to be presented. All was quiet. Troop 14 was called as the marching winners, and they came up to the podium with the trophy as usual. But then they stepped to the microphone and forfeited their win and called up the boys of Troop 77. They presented the trophy already embellished with a #77 to record the win.

The boys of 77 were truly excited, and they hoisted the trophy like they’d won the Super Bowl or the Stanley Cup. Everyone in the house was on their feet applauding; it was deafening. Many of our guys were covering their ears and smiling. Many adults were teared up again.

When breakfast was adjourned, the boys of Troop 7 were out the door fast. Their Senior Patrol Leaders formed them up quickly into patrol lines. When their arch rivals of Troop 14 came through those doors, they shook every hand and shared kind words. Arch rivals had become brothers.

And that’s how you create 500 autism-friendly teenagers with a 10-minute speech.

This post originally appeared on Autism Village.

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When My Son Said, “Look at Those Guys, Mommy. They Are So Black!’

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My four tiny boys and I had just arrived at McDonald’s. While waiting for our food, my then 4-year-old noticed two colorfully dressed, dark skinned men sitting at a nearby table. They were enjoying a conversation in a language we couldn’t understand, while sipping their Cokes and munching their French fries.

My son openly stared and smiled. As our family headed toward the playroom with drinks in hand, he peered up at me and spoke with wonder. “Look at those guys, Mommy. They are so black!” They were, and so I comfortably agreed. I was beaming with pride because my son had spent the first four years of his life stimming and not talking. His words were new, and my heart still danced when I heard them.

Moments later I was confronted by an unhappy black woman. “I heard what you said to your son,” she informed me, a hand on her hip and disapproval in her stance. After a moment of confusion, I understood her concern. She went on. “They are clearly visiting our country and should not be exposed to those ignorant comments.”

I wondered if she’d even noticed my colorful brood. My two oldest boys have dark brown skin, the 4-year-old is white like me and my youngest is a coffee and cream color (his dad, my husband, is quite black).

In attempting to tell this woman my reason for not reprimanding my son for his politically incorrect comment, I was given an opportunity to voice an opinion I’d not yet clearly formed.

Those two men were black. My 4-year-old had not lied. And he hadn’t judged them based on their skin color or fascinating and beautiful outfits. Rather, he’d been interested and impassioned to voice his excitement. If I’d asked him to be quiet or worse, not observe and engage with the world around him at all, I would have been in danger of frightening and confusing his natural curiosity, his thrill in enjoying the world. My adorable 4-year-old, who was slow to learn language to begin with, would have heard me bash his newly formed words and his desire to share them. Also, shushing him would be suggesting that maybe there is something wrong with their dark skin.

The woman didn’t exactly agree with me, but she also didn’t argue. She smiled at my boys and admitted that she wanted to think about what I’d said.

The men visiting our country are not my responsibility. The diners at the restaurant and their opinions on how my kids should behave are not my responsibility. Teaching my children to engage in the world and discover their passions is. It’s a job I don’t always do well, but I try to do it authentically.

If I could find that woman today, I would thank her with all my heart. By being willing to voice her concern, she challenged me to discover my own. And as is so often the case, through parenting, I came to understand what is — to me — an important truth.

Understanding and accepting our responsibilities — not fearing a truth for the difficulties it may bring or what others may perceive it to mean — and being willing to speak out when you feel others may benefit from what you have to say (as that woman did on that day) are what it takes to be an active parent. My mom taught me that.

It’s also a successful recipe for being a passionate and engaged citizen. For my boys and the world they will inherit, I insist on being both.

Follow this journey on Autism Answers By Tsara Shelton.

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In This Moment, This Is What It Feels Like To Be Your Mom

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In this moment I’m overcome with excitement; you have arrived and anything is possible!

In this moment I’m smothering you in kisses and hugs.

In this moment I’m singing to you; your smile lights up my heart.

In this moment I’m worried. Why aren’t you walking?

In this moment I’m grateful. The tests come back and say it’s nothing too serious, something called “hypotonia,” low muscle tone. You quickly start physical and occupational therapy

In this moment you’re walking for the first time, you’re just over 2 years old, and I can’t help but cry. This is one of the best moments in my life. I knew deep down the day would come, but to be honest there where times when I had serious doubts

In this moment you are amazing me with how much you know, how much you see.

In this moment I’m confused. I have no idea what is happening. It’s only the second day of kindergarten. Aren’t you just being a typical kid? Don’t they usually wait a few weeks before pulling you aside?

In this moment I’m frantic. Can anyone help? God please help!

In this moment I’m pissed as all hell. Why can’t they help, why can’t they treat you with the respect, patience and understanding you deserve?

In this moment I’m heartbroken. Where are the answers we are so tirelessly trying to find?

In this moment the doctor tell us she thinks “Griffin has Asperger syndrome.” Asperger syndrome, my son has Asperger syndrome.

In this moment I feel judged and insecure. Being told you aren’t doing a good enough job as a parent is not something I ever thought I’d encounter.

In this moment I’m praying the caller ID doesn’t say “Chicago Public Schools,” but it does…

In this moment I’m choosing to just hug my husband and let this challenge bring us closer together. Making this choice is not always easy, but I know it’s worth it.

In this moment I realize our family is anything but typical, and things like making friends and going to school are not going to be done in a traditional way.

In this moment I need to mourn things not looking the way I thought they should, even though I know we are doing what is best for you.

In this moment I am thankful you can express yourself in your own unique, brilliant way.

In this moment I’m feeling tired and frustrated that you need me to repeat and repeat things a certain way. I feel guilty for feeling this way because I know it helps you and is part of who you are.

In this moment I’m smiling, hearing you share your passions and vast knowledge on topics ranging from video games to classical music, despite hearing about it for the millionth time and not always understanding just what it is you’re telling me.

In this moment I’m in awe watching you talk to people you just met. Seeing you ask a parent about their baby, making that mother or father feel so special, noticing when another child falls down and going over to them to see if they’re OK.

In this moment I feel so lucky that at the age of 11 you still want to hold my hand even after I’ve told you it’s OK to let go. You look at me with your big brown eyes and say, “But Mom, I love you, why wouldn’t I want to hold your hand?”

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In this moment I’m believing, despite what I’m currently seeing, that your future is filled with lasting, loving, supportive friendships, amazing opportunities and experiences

In this moment I’m hearing you meltdown. The banging, screaming and cursing breaks my heart. I take a deep breath, and I hold you

In this moment I feel a pain that I pray I will never feel again. It drowns me in a coat of heavy despair.

In this moment I blame myself. I should have prepared you better. I could have said it this way… I should have remembered to bring this or that.

In this moment I’m trying to trust that I’m doing enough for you. It’s one of the hardest things to do.

In this moment I try to remember that even though you’re 11, sometimes the only way you can handle what is happening is to do what a 4-year-old might do, and that is to scream.

In this moment I will try — try to trust that whatever we need we will receive in the most perfect timing.

In this moment I am listening to you, really listening.

In this moment I know you are doing and will do amazing things.

In this moment I’m so grateful for it all — yes all of it — because I know every moment is a gift. A gift I sometimes would like to return, but one I know is leading to the next great moment.

In this moment I’m letting go of the fear, guilt, blame and loneliness.

In this moment I’m thankful for every single person who has taken the time to know you, ask about you, encourage us as a family and see the beauty of who you are.

In this moment I know you are exactly who you are supposed to be; I am exactly who I’m supposed to be, and that is enough.

In this moment I’m thanking God for trusting me and your dad with you. You, a brilliant beam of light sent from above to change me and anyone who is lucky enough to ever know and love you.

In this moment I love you more than the last.

This post originally appeared on What Will This Day Bring?

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How Severe Food Poisoning Made Me Reevaluate My Life

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There had just been a snowstorm, and my husband’s business trip was delayed. I was happy to keep him home a bit longer. Maybe I was feeling romantic a couple days after Valentine’s Day or maybe I just wanted him to shovel the snow. I went into the bathroom for a shower. I heard the house phone ring but didn’t think anything of it. I walked out of the bathroom, saw my husband looking pale, sitting silently in the living room. I was instantly nervous, and he told me that his brother, only 32, died. My mind went blank.

My brother-in-law was a free spirit, a surfer who traveled the world following the waves. He was a lifeguard who saved many people’s lives. He loved children and taught them about the ocean. To celebrate his life, hundreds of people gathered on the beach in February and many paddled out into the frigid Northeast water to pay tribute. This was the first event that February that made us take a hard look at what we were doing with our lives.

A few weeks later, I went to China without my husband to see my family. One morning, I was out with my sister, and I suddenly began to violently vomit. I fell over. My sister rushed me to the hospital, where I heard the doctor saying, “blood pressure extremely low…” I’d never felt that bad in my life and thought, “This might be it.” The doctor later said I had severe food poisoning, and I might have died had I not made it there so quickly.

In the hospital bed, I started to wonder if I was making the most of my life. Sure, I had a good education and career. I was on a great path by most people’s standards. I was learning that life is full of resilience but can also be fragile. Was I really making the impact I wanted to make on this world?

Heck no!

I decided at that moment that I want to live my life my way. I want to do things I’m truly passionate about and make a difference. When I returned to the U.S., I got together with my husband, family and friends. Events in our own lives led us towards a common interest — making the world a happier place for kids, especially kids who really need it. We had some ideas about making improvements to kids’ lives in the medical space. After talking to different families, doctors, nurses and therapists, SuperHealos was born.

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My husband and I left our stable jobs to pursue the SuperHealos mission. We’re just starting out but are making great progress. SuperHealos is dedicated to helping kids face life’s toughest challenges. We’re starting this journey by creating stories and characters to whom these kids can relate. For example in our first coloring storybook, “SuperHealos Adventures in the Hospital,” the kids are introduced to the SuperHealos characters and learn what they’ll encounter during their hospital stays. We’re introducing products, like our SuperHealos cape, that play an important role in the story. Kids can feel like SuperHealos with these products and continue to be empowered after reading the book. Our other big focus right now is redesigning the traditional hospital gown to make it more comfortable and exciting for kids to wear. It’ll be a fun part of the SuperHealos ecosystem. You can isit our website and Kickstarter for more info and to support the cause.

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Mom Creates Groundbreaking Tool for People With Visual Impairments

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Catherine Rose’s daughter, Alexis, is both hearing and visually impaired. Rose’s experiences with her daughter’s disabilities motivated her to seek out a career with a company that was improving people’s lives, which led her to accept a job at Philips in their healthcare division.

Rose noticed her daughter’s attraction to lights and convinced her employer to build a teaching tool to help children with visual impairments learn. LightAide is now being used around the world by people of all ages, and, just as important, by their teachers and caregivers, who are beginning to realize their charges might have better cognitive abilities than previously thought.

“There’s a whole lot of people who have vision, but they have low vision,” Rose said. “They can’t see as well in the light that we normally give them. But if we give them more light, then they may be able to use more vision.”

Read more of Not Impossible Now’s interview with Rose below:

Courtesy of LightAide

NIN: Your daughter Alexis is visually impaired. What’s her relationship to light?

Catherine Rose: We had the traditional toys that all had very little light on them and some sort of sound, and she was moderately interested in a lot of them. But what we found was as long as it had a bright enough light on it and a sound component, she loved it.

When she about two years old, my dad said what if I get out my light-up keyboard for Alexis? She has a combined hearing and visual impairment, so I didn’t know what she would think of it. Lo and behold, she loved it. She refused to leave it. I’d try to pick her up and she’d hunch down, like you can’t pick me up, I’m not moving, I’m not going or if I’m going I’m taking this with me! So we got her one.

She pays really close attention to lights on in a room versus lights off in a room. She gets really scared in dark spaces and even our church has a really high ceiling, so the lighting is fine ambient lighting for all of us, but it’s really spooky for her because she can’t see the roof and she can’t tell where the light is.

Do you get the sense that she’s negotiating her space and where she is in that space relating to the light source?

Rose: Yes, it’s like a beacon. The way some blind people learn space is by walking around the perimeter of a room, and it’s almost like she’s using light as her perimeter finder. If a room isn’t bright enough, she won’t go into it and she’ll cry. I think she uses light to get a sense of space and where things are. When she went to the Philips showroom for the very first time, she was like, “Thanks mom, you made the walls light up so I can see exactly where they are. Why haven’t you done this before?”

How did you get the project started?

Rose: There are a lot of [disabled] kids who light gaze, they’ll spend their day in a classroom staring at a light on the ceiling. It’s not a preferred thing for them to do because there’s no information coming from a light on the ceiling. When Alexis enrolled at the Perkins School for the Blind in Watertown, Massachusetts, they had this modified toy, basically Christmas tree lights they’d put on a board. They hooked it up so when a kid hit a switch, the lights would come on. It’s teaching kids cause and effect. But what I realized is that those lights are so dim, the kids weren’t really engaging with it. I knew what Alexis did with the light up keyboard and I thought those are much brighter, she’s much closer to the lights, she can see them better and we should be able to get bright lights for these kids. That’s when I took the idea to Philips to make a LightAide.

How did the project develop?

Rose: Philips built three of out spare parts, things hanging around the lab, and we took them to Perkins and had the teachers work with them and got all their feedback and really watched them, how they used it, what they wanted it to do, how we could improve it, what they needed more of.

What they suggested to us from the very first was we needed more educational content — more early literacy training, more capability for the students to do math and numbers. We made two more prototypes and we used nonprofit educational research group TERC. They helped with the questionnaires and surveys for the teachers and getting information … we wanted to meet at the point where the LightAide would make sense for the teachers.

So it developed from being a pretty simple unit that looked good into something that had pedagogical value as well. What are some examples of kids using a LightAide?

Rose: I got a really great video recently of kid using a LightAide to work on the concept of longer and shorter. We have an activity on it that compares the lengths of lines — the top line has eight dots lit up and the bottom line has five dots lit up — and she could tell by either counting the dots or watching the lights to figure out which one was shorter and longer. What was neat was about halfway in — she’s verbal — the teacher asked, “Tell me how you normally compare lengths of lines?” The student says, “With my fingers.” Because normally she’s a Braille reader and the only way she could interact with math was really with her fingers.

I tell people that LightAide is sort of like giving hearing aids to a hearing impaired person. What we normally do with someone who is vision impaired is we go straight from you’re vision impaired to Braille. What’s missing is there’s a whole lot of people who have vision, but they have low vision. They can’t see as well in the light that we normally give them. But if we give them more light, then they may be able to use more vision.

Courtesy of LightAide

Since you’ve launched the final version, what has been the feedback from teachers?

Rose: Their response is really amazing. The interaction that they get, the interest they get from the students to maintain attention on a task is great. They’ve told me they didn’t have something like this to engage the kids we’re engaging today, we didn’t know these kids knew these things and we didn’t have a way to gauge that they knew these things. That to me is really amazing because that’s exactly what we want. I don’t want someone sitting in front of a LightAide eight or sixteen hours a day. But what I want is for the teachers and the staff and especially for the parents, to go, my kid’s in there. I know that they know this stuff, so let’s push them even harder. Let’s give them that next challenge.

We had a kid who was doing at 9 months old something the occupational therapist was not expecting until 18 months. Here was a milestone a typical peer would be doing at 9 months and the therapist thought this kid is far behind so we don’t start on something until 18 months. Well, lo and behold, this kid was showing, I get this. I know how this works, I know cause and effect and I know if I hit the button, the lights are going to switch off. For me, that’s the fantastic part.

Catherine Rose and her daughter Alexis.

So the kids have this outlet and another method of learning, but it also provides a way to communicate to their teachers and caregivers what they’re capable of.

Rose: Some of the kids who interact with LightAide are nonverbal and this is the very first time they’re showing cognitive capabilities, and it’s cool to watch. I try to not to sound too hokey, but it’s really amazing to hear these stories.

Do you think the LightAide is something people can use during their entire lives?

Rose: We have a lady who’s 35 years old in Australia, who reads Braille and talks but had never seen the shape of letters. She’s using everything on LightAide as it is, but most especially the literacy stuff to learn the shapes of letters and just be able, it doesn’t really matter for her, she’s still a Braille user, she can still talk. But it makes sense for her because she can go oh, that’s what an A looks like. 

Learn more about LightAide by visiting their website and by watching the video below:

Photo credit: Catherine Lacey Photography

Written by Danielle Beurteaux

Read More Stories from Not Impossible Now:

ALS Patient, Husband and Father Voices ‘I Love You’ for the First Time in 15 Years

A Blind Mom Sees Her Newborn for the First Time — Watch the Video

Stay Calm App Can Help People With MS Manage Stress and Pursue Their Dreams

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To the Bold Woman in the Locker Room Who Taught Me It’s OK to Ask for Help

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It can sometimes only be in retrospect that we realize how poorly we were coping during a certain period of our lives. I was keenly aware that my stress level was high in the summer of 2010. What I failed to appreciate, however, was that I was not effectively handling my strain.

Our third baby had arrived right in the middle of a health crisis for our toddler. Our son, who had been medically fragile since he was born, was now being nourished almost exclusively through a feeding tube, a method that took hours to complete and caused daily vomiting. Our oldest, a preschooler, was a healthy and energetic boy who was suffering the effects of his parents’ divided attention. My husband’s demanding job meant he was often gone before we awakened and was not home until the boys were in bed. I was in the early years of motherhood and, though I could not recognize that at the time, still operated under the assumption that admitting struggle or asking for help was a sign that I was not “mom” enough. An idle remark such as, “You’ve got your hands full!” I took as an irritating criticism of my public performance.

Despite some warning signs from my toddler’s chronic stomach problems and recent potty-training reversals, I decided that the best thing to do one day was to take the three boys to our local pool. It was only after I’d heaved a huge pool bag, an unwieldy stroller containing a fussy 2-month-old and two straggling kids the endless distance from the car onto the pool deck in face-melting heat and humidity that I realized I had no swim diaper for my toddler. “He was potty-trained up until his brother was born,” I reassured myself, “And we will only be here a few hours.” Operating under my guiding principle of proving to the oblivious world that I was “mom” enough, I naturally decided it would inconvenience others far more to ask to borrow a swim diaper than it would if my child had an accident in the pool. Which is, of course, what happened in fairly short order.

I can blame what happened next only on my extreme horror and humiliation that my son had shut down the entire pool. Moments later, I found myself in the middle of the ladies’ shower room with a soiled toddler, a squirming and screaming newborn and no stroller or car seat or even a towel on which to lay him. Not knowing what else to do, I began a futile one-handed struggle to remove the bathing suit, streaming with poop, while my baby screamed and attempted newborn back-dives in my other arm. My stroller may as well have been back at home it was so impossibly far away. As I was desperately wishing someone would just hold my baby, this woman suddenly appeared in front of us. “You need help,” was all she said, in a beautiful German accent.

She was everything you imagine when you think of a 50-years-young, strong, tall German matron. I swear she was even topless. I’d caught her mid some act of practicality and purpose, but when she saw something more urgent, she wasted no time on the extraneous. She removed my son’s suit, then picked up — bare-handed — the poop that had fallen onto the floor and disposed of it as if it were just any ordinary thing to toss away. Next, she washed out my son’s messy little bottom with her bare hand and soap from a dispenser. She then attacked his filthy suit, washing it out in the sink with hand soap until it dripped with fresh-and-cleanness. Before I knew it my little boy was wearing his suit once again, ready to face the now-closed baby pool. She did it all in about three minutes and without any chit-chat or advice, like it was nothing. She was wonderful, and I wanted to cry with gratitude. I wished she was a permanent character in my life, but I just got her for those few minutes. Then, she was gone. Maybe her radar picked up someone choking somewhere.

We went back to the pool where I pretended that my son’s swim diaper had simply leaked rather than admit it had not existed. The rest of the day was unremarkable, and all I could think about was that wonderful lady and what she had said. “You need help.” But her remark was devoid of judgment or condescension. It was simply fact, and a fact that drove her to action. I did need help, and not just in those minutes in the pool bathroom but during that period of my life. Pretending otherwise only made everything harder on the people I loved the most, in service only to a self-defeating form of pride. I had been elevating my own need to feel like I could do it alone above all else, including the effectiveness of my single-handed efforts or the psychological toll it took on me.

I could have gotten my son cleaned up while my baby revolted in my other arm, but it would have been much more difficult, far more unpleasant for all three of us and would have yielded a lesser end result in terms of how clean my toddler and suit would have been. In other words, I could have managed, but I would not have managed well.

There is a difference between continuing to breathe during these times of stress and strain and actually surviving those times. Surviving signifies an overcoming. I was breathing, but I was not surviving. Sometimes during motherhood our hands truly are full, and we ought to recognize that not as a sign of weakness or ineffectuality but as an indicator that we need to accept the extra ones reaching out or that would if we sought them. Our loads are too precious to risk dropping.

It has been five years since that day. Today, my son is a healthy, perfect first-grader and an older brother to three younger siblings. When I find myself struggling to manage my beloved burdens, I reach out for help to get us all through as best we can. When my hands are freer, I try to seek out opportunities to lift others through their swamps of hardship. And someday, I want to be that permanent Fraulein for other people, swooping in out of the blue with nonjudgmental aid. Except for the bare-handed poop disposal, part. Surely getting a paper towel wouldn’t have been too extraneous. Though, I suppose, she would have lost points for style. I have long-wished I could have sent her a thank-you card, if only to let her know how much her kindness meant to me, how she recalibrated my thinking in a way that aided my entire family for years and how she provided an example of something to aspire to.

Fraulein, if you read this, thank you. I would send you hand sanitizer if I only could.

summer 2010 017

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