Today I’m seventeen. Five years ago I had just started at a new school and had only one friend. My class was filled with students who had grown up together, so it was tough. I remember a few weeks into the year another new kid joined our class from Saskatchewan and he knew no one. Remembering what being new was like, I introduced myself and in return he looked at me, grunted and then kicked me. Confused and mad, I yelled at him. I can’t recall what I said exactly but it was enough for my teacher to pull me outside and give me a talk. She explained to me that this boy had special needs like her son who had Autism. She told me his intentions weren’t to hurt but hat he struggles with responses. She explained that at his old school he was bullied and that unfamiliar faces sometimes meant danger and sadness to him. Growing up around people with special needs I was familiar with Autism and what that could mean and so I got strategic. I kept trying to connect with him, be nice from a distance so that I might gain his trust. After many failed attempts to connect with him he finally reciprocated and asked “Whats your favourite football team?”. From there we became faces to look for in the school hallway crowd. Our conversing was mainly debating over what football team would win the Super Bowl or us betting how many steps it would take to walk through the whole school. However, many of my classmates didn’t quite understand him. They began to pick on him and antagonize him, and thinking back on it now, I realize they just didn’t understand. But he didn’t ever seem to hold that against them. I adored him for that, he was tough. Time passed and we lost touch after going to different high schools, until I transferred to another school. I was lost in the halls trying to find my math class and out in front of me he walks. He starred at me and did a double take. I smiled and he yelled my name. I smiled. He hates hugs so I held out my fist for a fist bump, which he happily accepted. He helped me to my class and without skipping a beat we picked back up where we left off, debating over what football team is better. Throughout the rest of that year we continued our debates over football and added to the list was now politics. It was never a dull conversation between us as we had extremely differing opinions on the world. Although our conversations were always debates on other sides of the fence, I believe we found comfort in having history with each other. I’d often find him alone in the library at lunch where I would find him to sit with him to sit with for lunch. He would tell me about the news and whats happening in the world and I would tell him about all the new social media drama with celebrities. He always made fun of me for following the Kardashians on Instagram, and I always made fun of him for his love for the New England Patriots. I noticed the same thing happen in high school as it did in primary school. Many kids didn’t see the same kid I saw and he was bullied, ignored or often misunderstood. This didn’t make sense. Could they not see he needed extra patience and understanding?
I couldnt quite graps how my 17 year old friends and peers – who were intelligent kids not realize this boy had sspecial needs? Because I know these kids and I know that they would never purposely make fun of someone with challenges – they just weren’t cruel people. Then I realized they were just uneducated. To me the boy with Autism was my friend, I never thought to myself that I had to sensor what I said around him or that I needed to treat him like a baby because he had special needs. He was my friend, I treated him like I would any other friend, we argued, we laughed, we joked and we fist bumped. Sure I knew he could be triggered easily with certain subjects, I knew when he was upset and I knew how to talk to him in that situation. Since he was in all mainstream classes, was very politically aware, was well spoken and exteremley smart his peers though he was just a mean and annoying person. How could they have known that special needs come in so many different shapes and sizes. Im sure if I walked up to any of my classmates and said “explain to me what Fragile X is” or “Tell me about the physical aspects of a person with downsyndrome” they wouldn’t know what to say, and with good reason. Nobody has ever taught them about it. Just because this boy with Autism appeared physically “normal” nobody knew he has special needs and so nobody understood how to approach him or why he acted out in the ways he does.
On the opposite side of this is that in the classes I shared with this boy the teachers all treated him like he was different. They talked softly and in small words, sat him at the front and spoke for him to the class. This so clearly frustrated him, he would shut down and lash out. To students it looked like he was being attention seeking and argumentative but to me I saw that he was just trying to be normal, without being babied by teachers of picked on by peers. I tried to tell my friends to just talk to him like he’s your friend and to treat him like you would your friend. I watched as he slowly opened up to a select few, I watched as these kids started regular conversations with him realize that he was just a kid with funny corny jokes and a strong love for football. I watched his face light up when he talked to them, I saw a completely new kid. Now, for the record I remain the only one of his friends to have taken a selfie with him and I brag to him often that Im his favourite, he argues back to me that I will only be his favourite when I become a supporter of the New England Patriots. When he argues that all the kids standing around us will brag that they’re a fan of the Patriots in an attempt to win his friendship, he will look at me and laugh knowing the kids are just saying that to be his friend.
I guess what my point is, is that sometimes the reason people are uncomfortable and mean around people with special needs is because they are simply un educated and don’t know how to act. If only they knew to just treat them like everyone else and that they don’t want you to treat them differently. I wish the world would understand this, I wish every person in school learned about special needs. I wish the stigma around people with special needs would disappear. I wish teachers would be more educated on students with special needs and how to not act around them. At the same time I know see a boy who for his whole life struggle socially with friends and people who adore him. All because they simply just didn’t understand him before. I see change every day, I see more and more people understand. I hope this change continues, because I look forward to my daily conversations with this boy, I look forward to our fist bumps and his political updates. I hope more people are blessed by friendship with individuals with special needs, because it is a friendship I genuinely cherish.