Remember a while back when a Florida State University football player went viral for sitting down with an autistic kid at lunch? The boy was sitting by himself because he’d been ostracized by his peers for being different, and seeing him with a guy who was beloved at the school not only made the boy’s mom cry, but ensured that he’d have friends to sit with for as long as the hubbub about his lunch date continued. It was a touching moment, and now the parent of another autistic child is calling it out for a very good reason.
According to The Huffingon Post, Bob Cornelius was heartbroken when he went to his son Christopher’s Back-to-School night and looked over a questionnaire his 11-year-old son had filled out about himself. On the form, Christopher, who’s on the autism spectrum, put down that his favorite food is pizza and that he loves to watch Elmo. But then, when it came time to write down who his friends were, Christopher was at a loss. His answer, which you can see below, just states “no one.” His father, writing about the incident, said “never have five letters ever cut so deep.”
Cornelius, who is cognizant of the fact that his child is different — he flaps his arms, he repeats the same questions, and he makes noises that other children may not understand — did some soul-searching and realized that this would be a good teachable moment, especially for those parents who’ve never considered telling their kids to try and befriend others who may be different. There’s no blame here; Cornelius just wants people to know how difficult it is to be a child living with autism and how much a friend could help.
In his post, Cornelius points to the viral story of the boy eating lunch with the FSU player as a beginning, not an end. It’s true that the story was heartwarming (and Cornelius acknowledges how great it is that the kid now has friends to hang out with), but Cornelius also asks why the kid had no friends before and why no one had reached out to him before he was deemed special by a local hero:
The follow up to that story was that the boy no longer ate alone; that the other kids NOW were sitting with him and patting him on the back. That boy now had “friends”, and everything was right with the world.
Something that wasn’t right was fixed, and tied up neatly with a pretty little bow of kindness and understanding.
But in my head, I asked “Where were those kids prior to this child being thrust into the spotlight? We know where they were: they’re in the picture: sitting at other tables, ignoring him.
If that football player had not sat down next to that child, and if it hadn’t become a national news story, that kid would still be sitting by himself today.
That’s a sobering (and very real) thought. What would have happened to the kid if the player hadn’t chosen to sit with him? And what happens to all the other kids who are different and don’t have a football player to grant them legitimacy in the eyes of their peers? Cornelius isn’t asking anyone to feel bad, but he is asking that parents teach their kids to be empathetic to children with special needs and try a little harder to bring them into their social circles:
The only solution I can come up with is to share this with you and ask that you have a conversation with your kids. Please tell them that children with special needs understand far more than we give them credit for. They notice when others exclude them. They notice when they are teased behind their back (a lot of times “behind their back” is right in front of them because they think the ‘different’ child doesn’t understand). But mostly they are very much in tune when they are treated differently from everyone else.”
Cornelius’ post has been shared thousands of times and Christopher is now receiving cards and presents from all over the world from people who want to let him know that they care. It’s a great way to make Christopher feel loved and supported, but Cornelius is right that this kind of attention is fleeting. What’s more important is teaching kids how to be inclusive and helping them make change on a very local level.
But, you know, it’s also pretty great to see Christopher happy.