This is Jack. He is twelve, and he just finished sixth grade.
He has three brothers, and one sister, and a small dog named Wolfie.
Jack’s father is a dentist, and his mother is a mom, and they all live together in a house with black shutters and a front porch and a long driveway.
Would you say hello to him today? Will you smile gently when he walks through the door and maybe nod your head friendly-like?
Every day after school last year, Jack came home and climbed into the bathtub. He wore his clothes and he never turned the water on—not even once. Instead, he curled up on his side and closed his eyes.
And on the days when he had to come home early from school because of the tantrums and the salty tears he cried in front of everyone, on those days he went straight into the bathtub with no water. On those days, he stayed even longer with his eyes closed.
He felt safe there, in his quiet porcelain cocoon.
It’s summer now, and Jack has moved from the bathtub with no water to the swings outside. Whenever he’s nervous or sad or worried, he walks into the backyard and sits on the swing. He lifts his feet up and begins to move in a smooth, steady arc high above the ground.
These days, he is like a balloon that is slowly releasing hot, frustrated air. Every once in a while, he says something so quietly, it’s almost as though he’s reminding himself the way some people remind themselves to turn the light off after they leave a room.
I was for. So bad at school.
Sixth grade. It was not good for me.
I cried. For everyone to see.
The first week of July, Jack was supposed to go to something called Extended School Year, or ESY for short. But the people all around him—his dad the dentist and his mom the mom and a few other people—decided he was something called emotionally vulnerable because of his tough time in sixth grade, and maybe he should skip ESY this year.
Jack was very, very happy about skipping ESY.
But then, at the very last minute, a spot opened up in your camp, the one you’ve been going to for years and years—the camp where you work on stuff from the school year and take afternoon hikes and field trips to the beach.
Jack was very, very unhappy when we told him he would be going to your camp. He stomped his feet and screamed out No! at the top of his lungs and cried into Wolfie’s neck.
If Jack could tell you one single thing about himself, it’s that he wants to be like everyone else.
In fact, if he could march through the world waving a sign, the sign would have big block letters that read, “I want to be like everyone else!”
But on the back side of the sign—the side no one can see—would be tiny words that say, “I don’t know how to be like everyone else because I only talk about Disney movies if I’m nervous and I run my fingers down the sides of my nose all day long and sometimes I don’t answer when people ask a question right to me.”
And underneath those would be even smaller words, and they would say, “This is because of my autism.”
Jack is trying to be like everyone else the way a short person might try to be a tall person. With both hands he stretches to the sky, but the blueness and the clouds are always maddeningly out of reach.
This is Jack. He wants to belong, somewhere, anywhere.
Surely you can understand this. Surely you feel the same way, because we all feel the same way. We all want to fit in and have people laugh at our jokes and admire the shirt we’re wearing and say hey, I like pickles too!
Will you help him today, on this first day of camp? Will you show him where to put his red backpack that he’s had since first grade and point out the bathrooms and tell him what time everyone eats lunch? He’ll want to know these things. He likes schedule, and routine.
I know, he might come across as very rude in the beginning. He might say bad words, or try to run away and get back into the car. His dad the dentist might even have to chase him around the outside of the building and take both his hands and lead him through the door again and stand there hugging him for a while.
Jack-a-boo, I know you can do this.
Then maybe he will stand off to one side all day, alone. For the entire afternoon he might wait for his mom the mom to pick him up, a ghostly figure in his fluorescent green t-shirt.
Maybe he’ll come home after his first day of camp and sit on the swing and push his feet back and forth, back and forth, until his green shirt is little more than a blot against his unreachable sky.
Picture Jack like a turtle. Autism is his shell. It’s the first thing everyone sees about him; the hardness, the rigidness, the inflexibility.
But beneath the unyielding shell he is a good person, if you could just give him a chance. He is funny, and smart, and interesting. He loves Oreos and listens to a lot of music and he’s scared of lightning.
Won’t you give him a chance?
Please, give him a chance. I promise you won’t be sorry.