The Simple Gesture From Phil Loadholt That Meant Everything to My Son

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My son Tucker is a Minnesota Vikings fan. Yes, even after their recent loss to the Seattle Seahawks. He comes from a long line of Vikings fans — his dad, grandfather, uncle are all Vikings fans. Me? Yep — me, too. I’ll yell “Skol!” any chance I get at the television. I have not been a lifelong fan… but loving my son has made me a fan.

When autism and athletics intertwine the most beautiful thing can happen. Players, numbers, plays, records — all memorized. Memorized early on in his life, he probably knew and could recall more about the Vikings at age 6 than many adults. This knowledge of the Vikings is certainly amplified by his ridiculously amazing memory.

Last summer we took a trip to Vikings training camp. It’s a time where fans can get up close and personal with the players. There is a morning “walk-through” where players are not wearing pads and helmets, and then an afternoon, more traditional practice.

I decided at 6:30 a.m. I was going to take him. I’d been thinking about it for a couple of days. So — I woke him up at 7 a.m. and said, “Tucker, get ready — we’re going to Vikings training camp.” I’m not sure I’ve ever seen him move so quickly.

What does this trip have to do with autism? I sometimes forget. I forget all of the “stuff” that can go along with a new experience. I’m usually much better at preparing him, but I was still pretty exhausted from our recent vacation.

On our way we stopped for a new book because he had read the one in our vehicle eight times. What did he choose? “Captain Underpants.” I tried to have a conversation with him about choosing books more age-appropriate. He wasn’t having any part of it. He likes that series, so he’ll read it over and over and over again. Then I recalled: We were on our way to do something new, something different. This book would help calm his nerves until we arrived.

The book was nearly 200 pages long. He finished it in 45 minutes.

We arrived, and he had no interest in waiting in line for autographs. He simply wanted to watch the walk-through. We sat… we talked… we watched. Then it was time for lunch.

A new restaurant, a different menu, a hot boy.

Dark, crusty grill marks on burger.

Recipe for disaster.

Quivering lip at lunch.

We left, and we took a break. We found a cool spot and sat for awhile. Then it happened. A friend of mine was able to give Tucker a great opportunity — the opportunity of a lifetime, really: to stand in the hallway as all the Vikings players passed by.

Surprisingly, he initially wasn’t excited. I soon understood why.

As I stood in the hallway facing the players exit, he stood on the other side of the wall. He would peek his head around the corner to see the players coming. At first I blamed it on the lunchtime meltdown… but that wasn’t it at all.

He uses scripts to make conversation. He didn’t know what to say. He had no experience stopping a Vikings football player to ask for a picture. He had no experience in even saying hello as they passed by. He didn’t have the language.

How selfish and inconsiderate of me. I hadn’t prepared him for this moment. Not at all. I was so frustrated with myself, until I decided I would just have to model. I didn’t know many of these players, nor did I really know what to say, but I’ve never shied away from a stranger.

As they came through I began saying “hello” and “have fun.” “Stay hydrated, it’s warm out there.” “Have a great season.” As I looked at Tucker I realized he was watching closely — taking mental notes of what to say and how to act. He also giggled when I told Teddy Bridgewater and Chad Greenway to have a “good game.” At least I got him to smile and shake his head. They weren’t going to a game; they were going to practice.

Then, I saw him. One of Tucker’s favorite players — an offensive tackle, Phil Loadholt. Tucker stood in line for his autograph six years ago. They have something in common: both the biggest guys on the team – and here he was, walking down the hallway. Tucker looked around the corner, and his eyes lit up. He turned back towards me with a hopeful face.

I nodded at him and mustered the courage, “Excuse me. Would you be willing to take a picture with my son?” He peeked around the corner and looked at Tucker, pointed, and then looked back at me. “Yes, him — I know…but he’s actually just 13.”

He smiled, put his arm around him, and said, “You’ll be my size in no time. You’re a big kid. Keep working.” Tucker nodded and smiled.

From that point on Tucker moved beside me. He smiled at every player on the way out. He waved and often said a quiet hello. Adrian Peterson nodded at him.

Mr. Loadholt has no idea what he did for my son. He gave him a new script, he gave him hope for his own “lineman” career – it’s not glorious, but it is about loyalty, protection and a calm strength.

Those are the finest qualities that my Tucker possesses and evidently he does as well.

That ginormous man with that amazing smile also won my heart, that is for sure.

Tucker and Phil Loadholt of the Minnesota Vikings
Tucker and Phil Loadholt of the Minnesota Vikings

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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When a One Republic Song Helped My Autistic Son Say ‘I Love You’

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I’ve always believed music is a good way to express yourself for virtually everything. When I’m excited I’ll throw in some Pitbull. When I’m happy I’ll put on that overplayed but catchy tune by Pharrell Williams. I just can’t help but to clap along because happiness is the truth. When I’m on a long road trip I find myself listening to Ted Nugent, because it reminds me of the road trips in my dad’s semi truck when I was a kid. And when I’m heartbroken I believe Meredith Brooks described it best in her hit song “B*tch.” We are all allowed to hate the world on days like those. So it was no wonder when I had my son, Brock, that I introduced him to the wonderful world of music. Not always the songs I enjoy, but songs nonetheless.

A few years ago, Brock took a big interest in the band One Republic, and when their hit song “Counting Stars” came out, it was on repeat in my home. I believe at least half their views on YouTube came from my house.

He had the song memorized after the first time hearing it, and we would belt it out constantly throughout the days. At bedtime he’d ask me to sing that “stars” song (bless him, I sound like a pterodactyl) to help him fall asleep. He’d dance around the house with some Elvis-esque hip swivels to “Counting Stars” as well. One Republic and everything “Counting Stars” took over my life quickly, but I can’t help but be thankful because it did something much bigger than I ever expected.

Brock has always had an extensive vocabulary, but has trouble communicating and expressing emotions. By the age of 6 I hadn’t heard him say “I love you,” but it wasn’t a big deal because he showed his love in other ways. In his ways.

One day about a year ago after I finished singing that “stars” song for him (again, bless him) he says to me, “Mom you know that L-word? Well, I do as much as there are stars in the sky.” I had to clarify what he was saying so I asked, “You love me as much as there are stars in the sky, Brock?” And he nodded his head an affirmation and said, “Sing it one more time for me?” So I sang it one more time with tears streaming down my face. Seeing him work through his emotions and label it correctly was a huge moment. And hearing “I love you” for the first time was a big deal. I knew he did, but to actually hear it was a moment I’ll never forget.

I don’t want to give Ryan Tedder and One Republic all the credit, because Brock is the one who worked through his emotions and feelings to give me something I didn’t know I was missing, but I’ll give them some. Thank you, One Republic, for creating music that touches people of all ages and moves them in ways I can’t even describe properly. I don’t know what that song means to you; maybe it’s to someone you love, or something you couldn’t quite grasp, but to me it will always remind me of the time my son said “I love you” in a way only Brock can. “As much as there are stars in the sky.”

smiling boy with blonde hair
Lindsay’s son Brock

The Mighty is asking the following: Share a powerful moment you or a loved one has had with a public figure. Or, write a letter to a public figure who you feel has helped you or a loved one through his or her work. 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 Submit a Story page for more about our submission guidelines.

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To Parents, From One Person on the Autism Spectrum

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Ever since I found out that I was on the autism spectrum, I have loved being a self-advocate to help others. I started a blog about my life and published a book. I have made YouTube videos, written articles and given presentations. Of course, the views expressed are my own. But my hope is that people can learn from what I have been through and apply it to what may help others. I especially enjoy sharing my experiences with parents and caregivers, teachers and professionals who are looking for ways to help people they know on the spectrum.

Unfortunately, it hasn’t always been easy to help parents. Many times I would try, but I wasn’t able to join their groups online or in person. A lot of people thought I wanted a support group that was geared toward others on the autism spectrum, rather than for parents. Once, I was even added to a parents’ support group, but they told me they had accidentally added me, and then immediately kicked me out before I could post anything.

It was all so discouraging. I couldn’t figure out how to explain that I just want to help people who aren’t on the spectrum to better understand autism, at least from my own point of view. Finally, I read a blog post about the two words that a particular parent wanted to hear after their child received an autism diagnosis: I’m here.

That’s when I understood that not everyone processes the news of an autism diagnosis the same way. Some people are happy for answers. Others are scared of what the future holds. Maybe they are overwhelmed by the vast amount of information and just don’t know where to start. And still some need time to let it all sink in. Perhaps even all of the above.

So, to those who are lost in a sea of emotions; to those who feel that they might be on their own; to anyone who is ready, I’d like you to hear those words. I would like to say that I won’t judge you. I want you to know that I would love to provide insight into what my life is like, personally. This is not to say that I speak for anyone else on the spectrum, because I don’t. I only want to help. You don’t have to go through this alone.

I’m here.

The Mighty is asking the following: Write a letter to anyone you wish had a better understanding of your experience with disability, disease or mental illness. 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 Submit a Story page for more about our submission guidelines.

Lead photo source: Thinkstock Images

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An Apology From an Autistic Person Who Spoke ‘On Your Behalf’

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There have been times when I have been that exact person who started a letter or a forum post with “The autistic community feels…” or “We autistics tend to believe…” There have been times when I’ve assumed that how I perceive the wording of a PSA (public service announcement) that a particular organization puts out or the portrayal of an autistic character on television is how most people “like me” (i.e. most autistic people) would perceive that very thing. There have been times when I’ve written as though how I feel about autism as a “difference” instead of a “disorder” is how everyone else with autism feels about autism. There have been times when I’ve tried to be “the voice” of “the” autistic community.

And in those moments, I believe I’ve done my fellow autistics/people with autism a disservice.

I’m sorry for all the times I’ve spoken over you. I’m sorry for all the times I pushed aside your experiences and accounts when advocating for my own. I’m sorry for assuming that everything that affects me as an autistic person necessarily affects you as well, and I’m sorry for all the times that I’m ignorant to or don’t speak up about the things that affect you as an autistic person that don’t affect me. It was never my intention to invalidate you or your experiences or to put words in your mouth that aren’t in your head and heart, but there have been times when the way I worded my opinions has unintentionally done exactly that, and that is wrong of me.

I want to use my words to help make the world a better place for those with autism and other disabilities, but I want to do so in a way that makes known the understanding that others may have different ideas as to what this “better” entails or how to go about making this “better,” and that those differences are equally valid and deserving of consideration. I want to be a better advocate, and I now see that doing so means I can’t try to be an advocate for all autistic people or all people with disabilities. I believe I can only be an advocate for myself and my viewpoints, and I can only (and should) help to make the self-advocacy of others known and appreciated instead of trying to be their advocacy.

So thank you to Erin Clemens (who wrote a piece calling out people who try to speak on her behalf) and others who continue to remind us that one autistic person is only one autistic person and is not, nor should try to present themselves as, a reflection of the entire autistic community. Recently, I’ve tried to put in this very disclaimer whenever I mention autism and the matters surrounding it, and I do try to acknowledge that others on the spectrum feel and think differently than I do, but I slip up sometimes. When I do slip up, I want to be called out on it.

The Mighty is asking the following: What’s one commonly held opinion within the community surrounding your disability and/or disease (or a loved one’s) that doesn’t resonate with you? 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.

Lead photo source: Thinkstock Images

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Special Needs Mom Shares Touching Story of Hairdresser’s Simple Gesture

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In a Facebook post shared with The Mighty, Laura Connerton expressed her gratitude towards Supercuts hairstylist Julia Werder, who’s been working with Connerton’s children for the past six months in Philadelphia. Connerton’s 11-year-old twins Liam and Mady LeNoir have a rare genetic disorder called Pitt Hopkins syndrome (PTHS), as well as autism, and haircuts have been especially challenging for them.

That is, until Werder came along. Connerton shared a photo of Werder sitting on the floor while cutting Mady’s hair and explained that Werder’s patience and understanding has “made a world of difference” for the family. Connerton said Werder has cut Liam’s hair while standing by the front windows of the salon so he can see the cars outside, something that brings him comfort.

Werder sitting on the floor giving Mady a haircut
Image courtesy of Laura Connerton

“It may not seem like a grand gesture to others, but it’s a huge moment for families of children with disabilities or different abilities,” Connerton said. “It’s the little things in life that make all the difference to our special needs loved ones.”

Werder says the accommodations are a no brainer. “At my salon we try to accommodate all of our guests, so there’s no difference in doing something for someone who has a disability,” she told The Mighty. “I also saw how much anxiety Laura had when she brought her kids in, so we wanted to help make things better for her too. If there’s a way I can make things more comfortable for everyone, I’m more than willing to do it.”

Werder sitting on the floor giving Mady a haircut
Image courtesy of Trish Ems

“I just want people to realize that others in this world do see the bigger picture that all are equal,” Connerton added. She hopes sharing this story will inspire changes in the haircutting industry.

Werder sitting on the floor giving Mady a haircut
Image courtesy of Trish Ems

Read Connerton’s Facebook post in its entirety:

This is Julia “Jules” Werder, a stylist at a local Super Cuts in Philadelphia, Pa. She is an exceptional human being. She needs the world to know she is a beautiful soul inside and out for what she has done for my family. A simple gesture of a welcoming attitude of acceptance, where others often can not understand. She simply came into their world. It may not seem like a grand gesture to others, but, it’s a huge moment for families of children with disabilities or different abilities. When stressers of every day “typical” life’s routine are changed. Something as simple a cutting my daughter’s hair on the salon floor, may seem insignificant to many, but made a world of difference to us. She even cut my son’s hair standing by the front windows of the salon, because he loves cars so much. It’s the little things in life that make all the difference to our special needs loved ones. Thank you Jules for recognizing that difference.

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When I Talked With My Mom About Growing Up Without an Autism Diagnosis

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My parents have always been reluctant to recognize or admit that I have a disability. It wasn’t until recent years that my mom even started tiptoeing close to the word “autism” and taking a peek at it. My dad, on the other hand, still doesn’t like to acknowledge it. And my brother, especially not… he doesn’t even think autism exists!

Right after I got my official diagnosis, I “accidentally” left a copy of the paperwork, along with an article about autism and executive functioning that came with it, out on the table. To my surprise, my mom took the bait and read it. It seemed to make a big difference, as it took away all of her doubt that I do, indeed, have autism.

So the other day in the car, I don’t exactly remember why, but I started a conversation about it. I was interested in seeing what my parents, and others, thought of me when I was a young child. (My Auntie Em mentioned that she knew something was a little off about me the first time she met me, which was when I was about 1 and a half years old. She had brought my cousin BT, who was a year older than me, to play. She noticed I didn’t really acknowledge him a whole lot… and that I was “in a capsule.” So I wondered who else had noticed something about me!)

Here’s how it went, as best as I can remember.

Me: “Was I different from other babies? Did I cry a lot?”

Mom: “For a long time you were very sick and just wouldn’t get better. You had ear infections, and then you had a horrible rash that wouldn’t go away. So you cried a lot, but it was because you were always sick.”

Me: “But was I different from Bro?”

Mom: “You and Bro were total opposites. You just had completely different personalities. Bro is a lot like me, and you are so much like your dad.”

Me: “How was I like Dad?”

Mom: “You were so quiet and serious. Most babies smile and laugh and coo. You would not. You would just sit there. Nona called you Sobersides. Sometimes we could get you to smile a little half smile.”

Me: “Bopop said that Uncle Drew and Aunt Bea would [try] to make me laugh, and I’d just watch them, and once in a while I would just sort of chuckle. But nobody thought that was a little weird?”

Mom: “We just thought you were so much like your dad.”

Me: “I learned to talk really early, right? And I learned to read early?”

Mom: “Yes, you did.”

Me: “Was there anything about me when I was a little kid that made you think I was different?”

Mom: “Not really. You made eye contact, you played with other kids and everything like that. You did used to have really bad tantrums; you’d cover your ears and scream. That was a little weird. But it didn’t really start becoming obvious until you were 8 or 9. But back then, we had never heard of autism. We didn’t know what autism was. And even if we did know what it was, there would have been no services, nothing to help us. There was nothing. In some ways I think you were lucky, because you were never labeled while you were growing up.”

Me: “But I got in trouble a lot. I got yelled at a lot.”

Mom: “Yes, there is that. And I think the reason it started becoming more obvious was because you had some really crappy teachers who picked on you right along with the kids. I remember sitting in meetings with those teachers and thinking, ‘Don’t think you know more about my kid than I do. Don’t talk that way about my kid.'”

Me: “Then why didn’t you switch me to another school?”

Mom: “Because we didn’t have the money to do that.”

And then we got home, and the conversation ended there.

It was the best conversation about autism I’ve ever had with my mom. It felt good for her to validate that it is something real, that it isn’t something I just made up for myself because I thought it would make a good story.

I sort of feel sad for the little kid who was me because I never did get any of the help autistic kids can get today. I’m not talking about “act like you’re normal” help, but things like occupational therapy and just help processing the fact that I was different, and advocating for myself.

A book that reminds me of growing up undiagnosed is Stellaluna. It is a children’s book about a baby bat who falls out of her mother’s grip while flying and falls down into a nest full of baby birds. The mother bird starts to raise the bat as one of her own, but she scolds Stellaluna for doing what she considers to be strange and even naughty things, such as hanging upside down. She says that if Stellaluna wants to stay in the family, she needs to act like the other birds and stop teaching the other birds how to do bad things. It isn’t until she finds her mother that she realizes she doesn’t do these things because she’s a bad bird — she does them because she’s a bat!

If I had grown up knowing I was not a bird at all, but a bat… if I had gotten to meet other bats and been taught how to use my bat abilities to their best… would my life have been different? I guess I will never know!

Follow this journey on Diary of an Alien.

The Mighty is asking its readers the following: Describe a time you saw your disability, illness and/or disease through the eyes of someone else. 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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