Sunday, September 4, 2016

"Sitting on a Rainbow"

“Somewhere over the rainbow skies are blue, and the dreams that you dare to dream really do come true.” ––“Somewhere Over the Rainbow” by Yip Harburg

One of the most upbeat and heartwarming stories in the news this past week focused upon the kindness shown to a middle school boy with autism. [To read an online news account of this story, please click here.] Florida State University football player Travis Rudolph was visiting Montford Middle School in Tallahassee, Florida, on Tuesday with four teammates. At lunchtime, he noticed a student sitting all by himself. This boy, Bo Paske, has autism and usually sits alone during lunch.

Travis Rudolph walked over to the boy and asked if he could sit with him, and the two of them struck up a conversation about football. Someone captured a picture of this special moment depicting the kindness of a young man toward a middle school boy with autism, and this photo has gone viral around the Internet.

Although Bo’s mother posted on Facebook that her son usually eats lunch alone at school, it doesn’t seem to bother him. However, she was understandably touched by the kindness of Travis Rudolph. She wrote, “I’m not sure what exactly made this incredibly kind man share a lunch table with my son, but I’m happy to say that it will not soon be forgotten.”

On Thursday, Bo’s mother, Leah, had the opportunity to meet Travis Rudolph on the television show Fox and Friends and to express her gratitude. Bo was also able to share his enthusiasm about the experience, telling about how Travis had lunch with him and even signed his lunchbox. However, this story just gets better. Bo happily described the experience: “It was kind of like me sitting on a rainbow.” Certainly, that compliment had to make Travis’ day, just as he had made Bo’s day special by choosing to eat lunch with him so that he didn’t have to sit alone that day.

Having taught middle school for more than thirty years, I know how difficult social interactions are for all kids at that age. Add in the impaired social skills often found in autism, and kids like Bo Paske wind up sitting by themselves. However, we need to teach people how to be comfortable with and compassionate to those who are different. One of the nicest compliments I have ever received came last year from one of my nicest honors students, who wrote me in a letter that I had taught her: “Just because people are different doesn’t mean that they should be treated that way. Everyone deserves kindness.” However, I must give the credit to Alex, who taught me how to be comfortable with people who are different, an important lesson I now share with my students.

People probably have no idea how much those kind acts mean to kids with autism, who may even seem oblivious to their attempts to be nice. Fortunately, I have had the opportunity to witness how Alex reacts to people being kind to him and know that he definitely notices even seemingly simple acts. For example, Alex’s behavioral therapist and I take him to Burger King nearly every Friday afternoon for recreational therapy so that he can practice ordering his own food, using manners, carrying his tray, and eating in a restaurant. Once Alex became a regular customer, the cashier, Cassie, and the manager, Tammy, took a special interest in him, and now the three of them are on a friendly first-name basis. Alex lights up with a big smile when he sees these ladies and says hello to them, and they seem equally pleased to see and greet him. In fact, the other day, the cashier told me that she and the manager tease each other about whom Alex likes best, based upon the smile he flashes at them. Then she commented on how sweet he is, which, of course, made my day.

As Alex’s mom, I feel affection and gratitude toward those people who see past the autism-induced awkwardness to the pure and sweet heart of my son. In addition to the broad smile he gives them, I also see him shudder with delight that someone knows his name and acts happy to see him. Moreover, I know that these kindhearted people hold a special place in Alex’s heart because he asks God to bless them specifically in his nightly bedtime prayers.

Kind souls like Travis Rudolph and Cassie and Tammy, who see past the differences in our kids with autism and make the effort to make our children with autism feel welcome, are a blessing. Simply acknowledging the presence of our kids with autism means more than they know to these special kids and their parents. Furthermore, that kindness will be richly rewarded in unexpected ways. After all, what could be better than to be responsible for making a child feel like he was “sitting on a rainbow” or to be included in the heartfelt prayers of a young man asking for God to bless those who matter most to him?

“Don’t forget to show hospitality to strangers, for some who have done this have entertained angels without realizing it!” Hebrews 13:2

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