Sunday, February 21, 2016

Thoughtful Acts of Kindness

“In spite of everything, I still believe that people are really good at heart.” ––Anne Frank

For several years we hesitated to take Alex places because his behavior was unpredictable, and we feared that he might become overwhelmed in a public place. While our first concern was avoiding upsetting him, we also didn’t know how others might respond to his behavior, and we tried to avoid uncomfortable situations. Even as he has improved over time, we feel a need to protect him from people who may intentionally or unintentionally not take kindly to his impaired communication and social skills. However, as we have recently begun taking him out to public places more often, we have been gratified to see how kind people truly are to Alex.

On Friday evening, we took Alex to a Valparaiso University men’s basketball game, which was very crowded and loud. Despite all the people, noise, and activity, Alex thoroughly enjoyed himself. At one point, the cheerleaders tossed mini-basketballs with VU logos on them into the crowd, but we were unable to catch one for Alex. Later, a pretty college girl who had apparently been sitting closer to the court earlier in the game came up to sit with her friends in front of us. She smiled at Alex, held out the mini-basketball she had been able to catch, and asked, “Would you like to have this?” Delighted, Alex took the basketball from her hand, smiled at her, and thanked her.

What she didn’t know after she turned around was that Alex held that little basketball the entire game and kept smiling at her. The next day he was worried that he had lost that small gift, and he was relieved and happy that I remembered where he had put it for safekeeping. What she didn’t know was that not only did she make a young man with autism happy by giving him a small token, but she also endeared herself to his parents with her kindness to their son. That pretty young woman became even more beautiful in our eyes because of her kind heart and generous spirit.

Last evening, we took Alex to our favorite family restaurant, Round the Clock in the nearby town of Chesterton. The atmosphere is quite relaxing, and the food and service are always excellent. Moreover, we have been impressed with how warm and friendly the staff members are to Alex. One young lady, Kayla, has waited on us several times, and she also works as a hostess there on weekends. Whenever she sees Alex, she greets him warmly by name, asks him questions, and patiently waits for him to answer. Last night, as she greeted us and showed us to our table, she once again engaged Alex in friendly conversation, and when we left, she made a special point to say goodbye to him.

What Kayla doesn’t know is that Alex is always happy to see her, even when he doesn’t look up at her. She may not see his shudder of joy when she smiles and calls him by name, but his mother sees it all. She may think that she’s just doing her job to be friendly to customers, but we know that she makes the special effort to make Alex feel welcome because she patiently waits for him to acknowledge her, never rushing him, even when she is busy. Moreover, she treats Alex like an old friend, and for this his parents are thankful.

Later in the evening, we took Alex to the middle school where I teach for a Mardi Gras celebration, filled with carnival games, loud music, and hundreds of excited middle school kids. Like the basketball game the night before, Alex thoroughly enjoyed himself in the midst of all the chaos. As we entered the gym, my friend and colleague Debbie, who has always taken a special interest in Alex and shown him kindness, greeted Alex warmly, gave him Mardi Gras bead necklaces (which he promptly put around his neck without any prompting), and handed him three tokens,  explaining that he was to use them to vote for his favorite games. Before we entered the crowded, noisy atmosphere, Debbie’s reassuring demeanor prepared Alex for the activities ahead. Although she would likely dismiss her kindness toward Alex as no big deal and assure us that she was pleased he could be part of Mardi Gras, Alex was happy to see a friendly face in the crowd, and we were grateful that she made him feel comfortable.

As we walked around the gym, I looked for games that I thought Alex could play so that he could be part of the celebration. Seeing a game with big dice being run by one of my former students, I asked him if he would like to play that one. While I knew my former student was a nice young lady, she showed exceptional kindness to Alex as she patiently explained how the game worked. As he tossed plastic peppers into a sombrero, she earnestly cheered for him and encouraged him to stand closer, trying to help him win a prize. After the game was over, she sweetly told him, “Thanks for playing.” What she didn’t know was that he walked away with a grin on his face, pleased that he could participate in one of the games because she had helped him understand the rules. What she also didn’t know was that her former teacher will not only remember her always as an excellent student but also as a wonderful person who was kind to her son.

Spotting a game that was similar to his favorite game on The Price is Right, Plinko, I suggested that he try that one. In addition to the game itself being familiar to him, I was also reassured because the student running the game is one of my nicest students this year. She sweetly explained to Alex how the game worked and allowed him to have a second chance when the golf ball didn’t run down the Plinko board as it was supposed to do. When Alex’s ball landed on the winning spot, she cheered for him, even though it meant that he could throw a pie in her face. Knowing that Alex was not comfortable doing this, I explained to her that she didn’t have to do that, but she put the pie in her own face as a good sport. Smiling at Alex with whipped cream on her face, what she didn’t know was that he found the whole thing amusing. What she also didn’t know was that she has now found a special place in her English teacher’s heart because she took the time to help and understand Alex.

In an age where people often respond to expressions of thanks with “No big deal” or “No problem,” those who are kind to Alex should know that it is a big deal to us, and we see the extra effort, even if they assure us it was not a problem for them. Little things truly mean a lot to Alex, even if he can’t always express the gratitude he feels, often because he is overwhelmed by the kind acts. Moreover, as his parents, we always appreciate those who take them time to engage Alex, to speak to him in a way that is never condescending or patronizing, and to make him feel part of a community. In doing so, he has opportunities to practice his social skills, to enjoy interacting with others, and most of all, learning how to be kind to others because they have been kind to him. What may seem like a small act, indeed, has greater impact than people may ever know. However, we notice those who treat Alex with kindness, and we feel blessed.

“…And if you have a gift for showing kindness to others, do it gladly.” Romans 12:8


K. C. Wells said...

Tears in my eyes right now! I love kindness and patience and joy, and I really love hearing when Alex enjoys himself!! 😊

Belinda said...

Hi Pam
Is there a way to contact u by email or other?

Belinda said...

Hi Pam
It's Belinda again. I have a 22 yr old autistic son. I'm currently pursing the Organic Acids test with Great Plains Lab.
Thankyou for posting scripture in your blogs. I am very encouraged as I am always looking to memorize scripture especially in the mist of trials!!

in Him

Pam Byrne said...

Hi K.C.
Thanks so much for your sweet comment. Hope you all are doing well!

Pam Byrne said...

Hi Belinda,
Thank you for your nice comments. I hope the Organic Acids Test give you some answers for your son; we have found them very helpful with Alex. Great Plains Lab is excellent about providing support, too. I even got to speak with the director, Dr. Shaw, over the phone, and he patiently explained Alex's results to me.

If you go to my One Autism Mom's Notes Facebook page, you can privately message me there. I hope you'll keep in touch and let me know how things are going.

Take care,