Sunday, September 25, 2016


Earlier this month, the media reported the heartwarming story of the Florida State University football player, Travis Rudolph, who was visiting a Florida middle school and saw a student sitting by himself at lunch. This boy, Bo Paske, has autism and usually eats lunch alone. However, on that day, Travis Rudolph asked Bo if he could sit with him, and this story of kindness went viral on the Internet. While this incident revealed how children with autism are often isolated from their peers, it also showed the tremendous value of a simple act of kindness. This story drew attention to the problems kids with autism have regarding social skills and apparently had a happy ending. Not only did Bo enjoy lunch with a college football player, but also reportedly his classmates now choose to join him for lunch so that he no longer has to eat by himself.

Last week, another story about how kids with autism feel isolated from their peers also went viral in the media. As Fox News reported in an online article, “New Jersey dad pens touching letter after autistic son says he has no friends,” autism dad Bob Cornelius posted a letter on Facebook this week after seeing a worksheet that asked his son to list his friends, and his son had written “No one.” [To read this article, please click here.] What was especially heartbreaking about this situation was that the father saw the worksheet posted on the wall as a display for back-to-school night. At the time, the father didn’t read through all the responses; he simply took a quick picture of the worksheet. After he got home, he then saw what his son had written in response to the prompt, “Some of my friends are…”

In his candid Facebook post, Bob Cornelius explains the sad truth that his eleven-year-old son, Christopher, has never had a friend. While he recognizes that some of his son’s behaviors, such as hand flapping and noise making and asking unusual questions might make some people feel uncomfortable, he also notes, “Every adult that meets him is drawn to him.” [To read this Facebook post, please click here.] In addition, he says that while his son’s peers have never been mean to him, they have never included him, either, leaving him out of activities and making him realize that he has no friends.

Reflecting no anger or bitterness for his son’s situation, this autism dad’s letter admits that he doesn’t think “this post is going to change the world.” However, he asks parents to talk with their children about making the effort to show empathy and “include those that are different from everybody else.” As he points out, “at the end of the day, it comes down to compassion, empathy and understanding.” I am hopeful that his post will have greater impact than he expects, and I hope the media attention his letter is getting will make a difference in the lives of those kids with autism who don’t have friends. Perhaps people will recognize that making an effort to interact with children and adults who have autism not only blesses those with autism but also themselves through these acts of kindness and compassion.

As an autism mom, I can empathize with the sorrow Christopher’s dad feels that his son doesn’t have friends. In the sense of typical friendship, Alex has never really had those kinds of friends, either. By home schooling him, we protected him from that reality because he never saw himself as different from his peers. I remember doing a worksheet with him one time that was similar to the one posted on the back-to-school night wall. When Alex was asked to list his friends, he immediately told me, “Nanny,” his grandmother and my mom. At the time, I thought that was sweet; after all, she’s been my dearest friend all of my life and someone I know will always be loving, kind, and loyal to my son. However, growing up, Alex has never had friends his own age. Fortunately, he doesn’t seem to notice or care, and now that he is an adult, he can enjoy the company of the adults whom he has always preferred, anyway.

After reading this story the other day, I asked Alex who his friends are. Without hesitation, he named his dad and me and Nanny and Grandpa. Then I asked him who his friends are who are not his relatives, and he named his wonderful support team: Jennifer, Noel, Jessica, and Zika. (I would also add his aunts, uncles, and cousins who have been loving and understanding, along with some of my friends who show him kindness and interest.) Clearly, Alex has a keen sense of who cares about him. Moreover, if I had to handpick friends for him, I would choose those he considers his friends because I know they always have his best interests at heart. As his social skills develop, I see Alex’s interactions with others improving and enabling him to make more friends in the future, which is encouraging.

To me, what was equally troubling about this story of Christopher’s not having friends was the lack of good judgment and compassion his teacher showed by posting this worksheet for back-to-school night. I gather from his dad’s Facebook post that his son is in a special needs class. Surely, the teacher realizes that special needs kids, especially those with autism, have difficulty making friends. According to Christopher’s worksheet, his teacher’s name is Ms. Feld, and I would like to write a letter to her.

Dear Ms. Feld:

Like you, I am a middle school teacher of special needs children. Perhaps you have not had the more than thirty years of teaching experience that I have had. However, the posting of Christopher’s worksheet on the wall for everyone to see his heartbreaking response to the question regarding who his friends are was at best lacking good sense and at worst simply cruel. Did you stop to think about how his parents might feel in seeing that he had written “No one” in response to who his friends are? Did you consider for a moment that posting this worksheet for anyone to see was just wrong? In fact, let’s go back to the beginning. Did you even recognize that this worksheet was not appropriate for special needs children? As teachers, we know that we must modify assignments to make them suitable for our special needs students. If you ever plan to use this worksheet again, I strongly suggest that you omit the question about friends so that no child has to feel the sense of loss that Christopher––as well as his parents––had to feel as a result of your carelessness. In fact, I have a better solution. Take that worksheet and place it in the paper shredder so that you are never tempted to use it again. After all the publicity this worksheet has received this week, I hope that you have learned, as we teachers must constantly strive to do, an important lesson: try to put yourself in your students’ shoes before putting them on the spot.


Mrs. Byrne, middle school English teacher/Alex’s mom

“A friend is always loyal, and a brother is born to help in times of need.” Proverbs 17:17


K. C. Wells said...

I, too, wondered how a teacher could think it was okay to put that up. I hope this is an eye-opener for some. ❤️

Dolly Shaffner said...

Great response to that teacher! I hope you mailed the letter. Sometimes I write email responses to people in the heat of being upset about something and I don't send it, I just save it to my draft's folder.

Pam Byrne said...

Hi K.C.!

I have been dumbfounded and annoyed by some of the things special education teachers say and do and wonder why they ever went into teaching special needs children. However, their cruelty--whether intentional or not--reminds me that homeschooling Alex was absolutely the right thing to do.

Hope you are doing well.


Pam Byrne said...

Dear Dolly,
No, I didn't send the letter since I don't personally know the teacher. As you said, sometimes it just helps to write a response to deal with the frustration. Thank you for your kind comment about the blog!

Take care,