When My Son With Autism Was Awarded a Letterman’s Jacket

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In the spring of 2000, our doctors told us that my son, Jared, has autism.

Until that moment, I didn’t know anyone who had been diagnosed with autism. The only thing I knew about autism was from a 1988 movie called “Rain Man.”

We had a child who wasn’t talking, who had behaviors that made it almost impossible to be out in public and who doctors told us “would never _____.” And that blank was full of so many things.

Autism entered our family’s world that day.

I was determined to do all I could to have Jared be a part of his community. I involved him in all sorts of things. Sometimes it’s worked and sometimes it didn’t. Autism can be like that.

I held fast to a decision that Jared belonged in his neighborhood school and to his community. It wasn’t easy. There were many days when I wanted to give up. But there are days when I smile and say to myself all of this work has been so worth it.

May 23, 2015, was one of those days.

This past year in high school, Jared had the opportunity to be one of the managers for the Cosby High School varsity football team and the varsity girls’ basketball team.

He loved every minute of it. Well, except for the beginning. New things tend to cause anxiety for Jared, a huge amount of anxiety. This was no different.

As a matter of fact, the first weeks of these new experiences had both Jared and myself in tears. But we chose to push forward and hoped the school community would accept someone with differences.

This school did just that. They have shown over and over again they understand belonging, they understand community and they’re accepting of differences.

Tammy Burns the mighty.3-002

We saw that in the high school football players who accepted Jared as part of the team. They encouraged and talked with him as he cheered them on and filled their water bottles. They also locked arms with him as they marched onto the playing field.

We saw that in the high school basketball players, who weren’t concerned in the least about having a manager who may do an odd dance on the sideline or hold his hand over his ear as his sensory issues took over and who saw him as a part of their team.

On May 23, 2015, the school held an assembly to award the girls’ basketball team their state championship rings. The student body assembled in the auditorium. The team and the coaches sat on the stage, and Jared sat right there on the stage with them. One by one, the players and managers (including Jared) were called up to receive their state championship ring.   

I was overwhelmed with emotion to see how the team, the coaches and the school as a whole exhibited complete acceptance and belonging.   

At the end of the assembly, it was announced that a special award was being given. I listened as the most incredible words were spoken about my son. I watched his face grow more and more curious. Then I cried as they called him up and gave him a varsity letterman’s jacket. I could hardly breathe as I watched the players, coaches and the entire student body rise to their feet and cheer and clap for Jared. He proudly slipped on the jacket and stood on the stage with a smile that said more than any words can say.

It was one of those moments in life you live for. The local news ran a story.  I watch the news clip often and I’m always filled with gratitude, humility and pride. Not just pride in all that Jared accomplished, but pride in humanity as well.

Follow this journey at Our Life With Autism.

The Mighty is asking the following: Tell us about a time someone went out of his or her way to make you and/or your child feel included or not included. If you’d like to participate, please send a blog post to [email protected] Please include a photo for the piece, a photo of yourself and 1-2 sentence bio. Check out our “Share Your Story” page for more about our submission guidelines.

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Why This WNBA Star Is Sporting Nike’s New Sneakers for People With Disabilities

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When WNBA All-Star player Elena Delle Donne first heard about Matthew Walzer, the teen who challenged Nike to design sneakers for people with disabilities, she took a particular interest in his story.

Delle Donne, who is the shooting guard and small forward for the Chicago Sky, has been vocal about her younger sister, Lizzie, who was born blind, deaf, with autism and — like Walzer — lives with cerebral palsy, according to Delle Donne’s website.

Delle Donne understands how difficult it can be for someone with a disability, like her sister, to comfortably wear sneakers. So, to show solidarity with her sister and everyone else who will benefit from Nike’s new shoes for people with disabilities, Delle Donne proudly sported Nike’s FlyEase Zoom Soldier 8 shoes at the WNBA All-Star game on Saturday, July 25, ESPN reported.

Delle Donne also invited Walzer to the game, and the two were able to meet and share their stories beforehand. Delle Donne tweeted a photo of the two of them following the game:

“This moment, meeting Matthew, looking at these shoes and knowing that I get to wear them tomorrow and someday see them on my sister is by far the best part of All-Star,” Delle Donne told ESPN in the video below. “This is life-changing for so many people, and to be a small part of it is so special.”

Learn more about Walzer, Delle Donne and the story behind Nike’s new sneakers in the video below.

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To the First Stranger Who Didn’t Reject My Son With Special Needs

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Dear Sir,

I’m sure you don’t remember us, but we certainly remember you.

You most likely began your day expecting it would be just another day at work, one which might not contain any moments of great importance. 

I’m sure when you first saw us enter your building, you had no idea I was already dreading the next few minutes.

You see, my son, a sweet boy with a huge heart and a body that makes him look older than he actually is, doesn’t comprehend the social niceties you and I can. 

He doesn’t realize some people don’t want to be hugged by a perfect stranger, even if that stranger is a child. He doesn’t understand people don’t necessarily want to be his friend, despite his constant requests of every person with whom he comes in contact to be his friend. 

He doesn’t comprehend the curt and often cruel comments spoken in response to his requests and gestures of friendship — unfortunately, the kind of comments he might continue to receive throughout the rest of his life.

He has no idea that every time we’re in public, I constantly expect my heart will break, yet again, for the rejection relentlessly experienced by my sweet boy.

For the cruel words spoken by ignorant people.

For the grace-lacking comments about his obvious difference from everyone else.

For the looks of derision constantly sent his way.

For the looks of pity I regularly receive.

These strangers don’t understand that my son doesn’t yet have the capacity to understand he’s being rejected. 

While I should feel relieved that my son will not have to — at least for now — experience the feeling of rejection, it does not. It is at once infuriating and heartbreaking. So when we entered your building, I was expecting you to react in the same way that the vast majority of people have, rejecting my son.

I have to apologize for judging you — an ironic statement because I was expecting you to do the same to us. When my son wrenched his hand out of mine so he could run over to you, introduce himself and ask if you would be his friend, I braced myself for the rejection I knew was coming.

Instead, you knelt down so you were at his level, eye-to-eye with my son, held out your hand to him, and said you would be honored to be the friend of such a fine young man.

I burst into tears at that moment, something which I initially felt embarrassed about. The feeling quickly morphed into gratitude when you looked at me with a kind expression and asked me if it would be all right if my son helped you with your work.

You had no way of knowing that ever since my son first found out we were going to visit the village, the one thing he was most excited about was the blacksmith shop. For a reason I still don’t understand, he had become obsessed with the idea of becoming a blacksmith. I waited until the end of the day to visit your building because I knew any rejection experienced at your building would not only cause my son’s hopes to be destroyed, but would also completely ruin the entire day for him.

Your request made his face light up with a joy I’d never seen before on his precious face.

I’m still in awe of the patient way in which you allowed him to “help” you, answering his incessant questions while making sure his body, always awkwardly and constantly in motion, remained safe. 

You took a full hour out of your day to spend time with my son, giving him the greatest gifts that anyone had given him before. Kindness. Acceptance. Value.

You not only gave my son the ability to experience something for which he had longed to experience, but also gave him the gift of actually seeing him as a person. Someone of worth.

When we left your building that day, my son proudly clutched the piece of metal he had “helped” you forge and walked away with his head held high.

My heart was full, not only because of all that you did for my son, but also because for the first time, someone actually saw my son as a person of significance.

So thank you from the bottom of this grateful Mama’s heart. 

With eternal gratitude,

Will’s Mom

The Mighty is asking its readers the following: Describe the moment a stranger — or someone you don’t know very well — showed you or a loved one incredible kindness. If you’d like to participate, please send a blog post to [email protected] Please include a photo for the piece, a photo of yourself and 1-2 sentence bio. Check out our “Share Your Story” page for more about our submission guidelines.

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An NFL Player Made a Memorable Special Olympics Opening Ceremony Speech

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On Saturday night, more than 60,000 people filled the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum to celebrate the beginning of the 2015 Special Olympics World Games. The night included fireworks, performances from Stevie Wonder and Avril Lavigne, and appearances from First Lady Michelle Obama, actress Lauren Potter and Olympian Michael Phelps. The atmosphere was electric.

Of the many exceptional speeches we heard, below is one of our favorites.

Kansas City Chiefs running back Jamaal Charles spoke about how Special Olympics gave him an opportunity when no one else would.

“When I was a boy, I had trouble reading. I found out I had learning disabilities,” Charles said. “People made fun of me. They said I would never go anywhere. But I learned I can fly.”

Watch Charles’ touching speech below:

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The Best Help I’ve Ever Received During My Son’s Meltdown

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For the most part, the trip was fine. Sure, there were bad parts. My husband woke up the morning we were supposed to leave with a 103-degree fever and had to stay home. By the end of the trip, I was in the emergency room with an incredibly painful double ear infection. But in between, I managed the trip to Disney World with Danny, my then-6-year-old, with a lot of patience and luck.

But I wasn’t quite prepared for just how difficult it would be. I knew Danny was prone to meltdowns, but everyone said he would outgrow them. I knew he got anxious and scared more than other kids, but I thought he’d be fine. I didn’t know — no one even suggested — he had sensory processing disorder (SPD).

I didn’t know I was taking a 6-year-old with SPD to Disney, by myself, along with a raging infection in my ears. And so there we were at Epcot, a few days into the vacation, both of us sobbing.

Our first ride that day was Mission Space, where you’re an astronaut on a mission to space (hence the name). It was way too much for Danny. Too loud, too stressful, too overwhelming. It was a good 20 minutes before he could calm down. We moved on with our day and I brushed off the bad reaction.

By 6 that night, he was done. Too many people, too much noise, too overwhelming. Unfortunately, we still had an hour and a half to kill before our dinner reservations with Chip and Dale, his favorites. And that’s when I made my mistake.

“Lets go on Spaceship Earth,” I said.

Completely overwhelmed and unable to verbalize his stress, Danny started to sob. He thought I meant Mission: Space. Unable to tell me the source of his anxiety, he got more distressed the more I insisted.

So he did the only thing he could: He bit me. Hard.

And that’s when the Disney worker found us sitting on a bench, both sobbing.

“We can’t have this!” she said and walked away.

Thanks a lot, lady, I thought. Can’t you see I’m doing the best I can here? I’m alone with my child, my ears hurt, and now my arm is bleeding. I started crying again.

And then I really cried. Because the woman was walking back to us with two ice cream cones, one chocolate and one vanilla. She asked me if Danny could have one. His tears disappeared as he happily attacked the chocolate.

I thanked her over and over. Usually the public response to a Danny-meltdown was to glare at one or both of us. Kindness was rare, and generosity even rarer. I asked if I could hire her for the rest of our vacation. She smiled, declined and walked away.

There’s a lot of great memories from that vacation. Danny’s joy on Big Thunder Mountain Railroad, dancing with Phineas and Ferb, and the day spent just lounging by the pool.

But, above all else, I will never, ever forget that woman’s kindness. I’m nine years into learning how to deal with SPD now. And that one ice cream cone was the best help I’ve ever received.

The Mighty is asking its readers the following: Describe the moment a stranger — or someone you don’t know very well — showed you or a loved one incredible love. If you’d like to participate, please send a blog post to [email protected] Please include a photo for the piece, a photo of yourself and 1-2 sentence bio. Check out our “Share Your Story” page for more about our submission guidelines.

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New Honey Maid Ad Spreads Sweetness, Love and Disability Acceptance

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On July 24, the graham cracker company Honey Maid released the latest video in its #ThisIsWholesome campaign, an effort to represent the diversity of American families in its advertising.

Its newest ad features a woman in a wheelchair teaching her niece to make cheddar apple melts on graham crackers. It’s simple, sweet and important. The ad’s release coincides with the 25th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act on July 26 and includes audio descriptions for viewers with vision impairments, as well as closed captioning.

Watch the heartwarming ad below.

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