Nico starts second grade this week. He will be back in-person at his elementary school after being a virtual learner for the last year and a half and I feel like we’re prepping for his Kindergarten year all over again. All of his first grade experiences were remote. I didn’t want Nico to connect school with what COVID had transformed it into during his first grade year. He may not have ever wanted to go back. For the first part of last year there was no recess, no lunchroom access, no rotations, and no real contact with classmates. These are all Nico’s most favorite things when it comes to school and I knew if he constantly heard “no” to every one of them it would have had a lasting impression. So instead, we trudged through virtual learning with the help of his miracle workers aka ABA therapy team and somehow survived the year.
I tried to fill his summer with a lot of fun and engagement since the school year was so trying for him. Virtual learning had taken a toll on me as well so I was in desperate need of some R&R. We went on an amazing beach vacation with our family, which included Nico’s cousins who know him like no one else and accept him for who he is. I always feel more at ease when we surround ourselves with others who “get it.” Who understand Nico and understand his Autism. It’s easier and less anxiety-inducing. And, as good fortune would have it, my husband and I connected with another Autism family on our trip. For once in our lives we had people outside of our family/friend circle to talk to who “got it.”
It was Nico’s cousin who recognized the behaviors that the little boy was displaying while we were all hanging in the pool one day and knew he “was like Nico.” She mentioned it to my husband and me and I couldn’t help but be proud of her because she was so empathetic towards this little boy. She didn’t just sit and stare at him or shy away from him like others can do when encountering an individual with Autism. Instead, she encouraged us to connect with his parents. I will forever be so thankful to her for urging us because once we met this lovely family and began sharing our stories of our sons it was like we were speaking our own language. I felt less alone and more empowered and I haven’t felt that way in a long time. We exchanged numbers and vowed to stay connected. It’s important to stay connected. It made me long for that type of connection with other families closer to home.
But, what I found this summer with that one family is what I hope for my son. It just takes one person to make you feel less alone…to feel included.
When Nico walks into his classroom this week, my hope is that his classmates will see past his stimming and scripting, will be open to his unique yet sometimes disruptive behaviors, and will give him more than one chance to show them that he’s a pretty cool, fun-loving kid even though he may not be able to keep up a conversation with them when they try talking to him.
And, I hope that Nico walks into his classroom with an excited disposition knowing he’s going to have a great time in second grade. I hope he leaves the worrying to me. I hope he is oblivious to what I am anxious and worried about and just focuses on whatever makes him happy in that moment (which will probably be his teacher’s amazing book corner). I feel like this is how he lives his life for the most part anyway. He is blissfully unaware of social acceptance; he has anxiety about things that HE deems important and that’s more than enough for him.
I read this incredible story the other day and I couldn’t help but be overcome with emotion by the end; that one person can make all the difference in the world. How proud his mother must be to have a son so empathetic and kind-hearted. I pray Nico’s spark attracts a good friend like that little boy. Someone who will stand next to my son and accept him for who he is. All kids deserve that. I want this year to be the start of many great years filled with friendships and acceptance and inclusion. I want to know that when I host birthday parties for Nico they will be filled with not just his family, but with friends he has made at school. And, I can only hope that he will be invited to some himself.
I tend to see social media posts floating around this time of year asking people to “choose kind” and I can’t help but think that they must’ve been initiated by parents just like me who are worried about their children being accepted and treated with respect. It’s a concern not just reserved for Autism parents. So today, I join the countless number of parents who, as they send their kids off to begin another school year, hope and pray that it’s a positive, uplifting and inclusive one. The world is filled with way too much negative energy and superficiality; it’s so tough to be a kid today. We have to start helping our children change this harmful narrative that can so easily penetrate their school hallways. With that said, my biggest hope for our students this year is this:
If you want to stand out in school, be the one who stands out by standing UP for and SIDE by SIDE with someone in need.
And to my Nico…we’ll take each day as it comes like we always do. Just do your best, be your best, and see the best in everyone and everything. Mom and Dad love you very much! Good luck!