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The Out-of-the-Box Way Teachers Helped My Son With Autism Open Up

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My son Jonathan’s first experiences at school were difficult. The kids at school either ignored him or bullied him, and the teachers at this particular school just didn’t work well with students who learned differently. Though he wasn’t diagnosed with autism at the time, we could see he was struggling to keep up with his peers, both socially and academically.

He was smart and loved to learn, so we knew it wasn’t him. We just had him in the wrong school. He was funny and delightfully quirky, so we knew we had him in the wrong social environment.

Luckily, we found a real out-of-the-box school where children engaged in experiential learning. The teachers focused on the “whole” child, their well-being and not just academics. So we eagerly enrolled him for the next school year, feeling excited he’d finally blossom. But he still was anxious and afraid he’d be bullied again, so he just wouldn’t engage.

Jodi Murphy's son, Jonathan, left, his teacher
Jodi’s son, Jonathan (left), with his teacher.

His teachers came up with a creative idea to see if they could break down his barriers and help him open up. Finally, I had a team on his side who believed in him!

“Every time we see Jonathan, we’d like to give him a bear hug,” his teachers said. “When he comes to class or we see him in the hallway or out on the playground, he’ll get a hug. Would that be OK with you?”

“Let’s give it a try,” I responded, and #ProjectHug was a go!

So did it work?

In his own words, Jonathan said:

“When I first arrived at the school I felt I didn’t fit in. I was very anti-social, introverted and I just didn’t want to do anything. But one of the things that changed me was that every time my teachers saw me they’d say, ‘Jonathan, how ya been, buddy?’ and give me a big bone-crushing hug.

I’d stand still and say, ‘Oh, my God, not again.’ It was uncomfortable, but thanks to all their efforts, I started to get more self-confidence. I started talking to more people. I developed a trust in the teachers and kids at the school.”

Jonathan became more active and involved at school and a few years later earned “Outstanding High School Student of the Year” and the coveted “Stanbridge Award” for being a good role model and leader. He talked about it being the turning point for him during his high school graduation speech. It gave him the confidence to go on to college, perform in theater and become a voice actor. Today, his character voices are in video games, apps, audio stories and even a major California theme park.

Now I’m not saying #ProjectHug would be the thing to do with every child, and I’m sure his teachers would have stopped immediately if it caused Jonathan more anxiety or stress. The point is that for the first time we found a school with teachers who saw nothing but potential. And thanks to their creativity (and hugs) Jonathan soared!

Our family made an interactive children’s book about #ProjectHug — sort of a space adventure to an alien planet (a.k.a. a new school) and you can get it for free at this link.

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Originally published: May 6, 2016
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