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 them in a public way. Tate has autism and it is hard for him to make friends for several reasons, one being that he just does not understand how relationships work. Tate does not understand social reciprocity but he is 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 are 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 does not have to be defined in words but it is taught by example. Kindness does not 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.
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 the word, “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 they offer each year, 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 does not make any trouble. He is quiet. He is 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 and I realized that I had given the word kindness a very small definition. Because Tate cannot DO so many things that the rest of us can he does not always show kindness the same way the rest of us do. Tate cannot show kindness by being a peer model for a classmate who is lacking in social skills but he is a very kind young man. He demonstrates it every day. He gives without expecting anything in return. He forgives easily when he has been wronged and it takes a whole lot to make him angry. His lunch buddies have described him as kind and a good friend who likes everyone.
It has 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 that is speaking a different language than you do. It would take so much longer to learn to swim if you did not have all the supports and you did not understand the instruction. When a child with autism is put into social situations they must feel like they are 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 does not see the little milestones.
After my light bulb moment I was a bit aggravated that I had even needed a minute to ponder whether or not Tate could be described as kind, because just yesterday he had shown me just what kindness really looks like. I took Tate Christmas shopping at his insistence. He had less than twenty dollars, earned one dollar at a time by doing one of the only jobs he has 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 twenty dollars? 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 I. Tate planned to put it up so we could kiss under “the mistletoe.” 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.
Note: I know that the mistletoe has got to be one of Tate's newest movie related interests. He has been watching lots of Christmas movies and has a sudden interest in little details like silver bells and mistletoe. Anyone know where to find mistletoe in the middle of Kansas?
To see the People magazine interview, go here: A Lesson In Kindness
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