It’s the first of April, the start of the annual World Autism (Awareness) Month.
You walk into an air-conditioned function hall big enough to fit 200 people.
A group of some 30 folks gathers there for an overnight camp.
There are parents chatting among themselves. A few teenagers are playing basketball with a couple of adult volunteers. A few teens are moving about or bobbing on the spot.
It’s the teenagers that make you take notice after entering the hall, soaking in the sights and sounds for the first ten seconds.
What’s going on?
On the left of you, one young man holds an A4-size drawing board and walks up and down muttering to himself while writing invisibly. Not on the board but in mid-air.
In the opposite corner, a young lady who looks to be 15 or 16, walks to the front of the hall, her right hip permanently raised higher than her left, making her limp. She reaches the hall’s stage, hauls herself up unsteadily, sits cross-legged, and meticulously writes on her own board numerals, starting from 1. All the while in deep concentration.
You turn your attention now to the center of the hall where a basketball game is underway.
There are a couple of adults going at it but mainly your eyes are drawn to the teenagers playing alongside them.
One, despite being the smallest in size, is barking out instructions to everyone, and taking turns to shoot the basket. But nearly always from the same spot.
Another, upon taking the ball, merely bounces it to the next player, seemingly unaware of the basket hoop above him. Then, he leaps on the spot, as though mimicking the ball he just bounced.
A third takes the ball, shoots it at the basket, then walks off the court. He returns now and then but never shows any facial expression other than one that says: “I’m bored.”
Witnessing it all for the first time, it’s no surprise the question that torpedoes into your head:…
…“What’s going on?”
Bringing autism families together through a cycling camp
Last July, C, my youngest with autism, finally mastered cycling after attending 5 cycling lessons with Ageless Bicycling. This was after his mom gave up after trying for a couple of years. (I was no help but hey, I only learned it myself at the ripe old age of 34! And I still avoid it whenever I can).
The people from AB are a wonderful group of volunteers who help youngsters with autism and other special needs pick up outdoor skills through sports clinics and camps.
This month, they organized a cycling camp and eight families (including mine) signed up. These volunteers and the families are the people you see when you walk into that hall.
It’s what I saw when I first stepped in myself that first day.
Honestly, in all these years of autism awareness, this was the first opportunity I got to spend so much time among other families with kids who have special needs.
In the past, the sporadic special needs events I attended lasted no more than half a day. And they usually involved many more families, making it hard to observe the interactions up close and personal. My inner introvert also finds large gatherings draining after a while.
This camp though was an eye-opener and I’m deeply grateful for the effort the organizers at AB put in to make it happen and bring all these families together through play.
What I learned from the autism families I met
It was especially an eye-opener for me because I saw first-hand what an inclusive community could look like.
For those teenagers (including my boy) were so often doing things their own way. Jumping up and down during a sit-down. Overturning stuff and spilling them in every direction. Grabbing belongings of others without permission. Invading personal spaces without a care.
There wasn’t a single parent there that didn’t look world-weary. In fact, many of them looked far older than me; mind you, I’m already in my 50s!
And after spending some time with their wards during this camp, who could blame them?
If the world could spend even half a day in that hall, they would see what I see, and why.
Every so often, there would be at least one kid in a major meltdown. Another wandering off to goodness knows where. Or one just making sudden double-barrel screeches that sounded like a cross between an owl and a peacock.
Yet, not once did I see any of the adults go into a state of panic or revulsion. Each parent handled each episode calmly and with a generous dose of patience and equanimity. Even when the kid wasn’t their own.
But make no mistake. Each time the storm passes, the parent is clearly emotionally spent and needs to step away for a bit to recompose himself or herself. That’s where the other parents and volunteers step in to fill the space and keep the kids safe and engaged.
They say it takes a village to raise a kid. If true, then I think it takes two villages to raise an autistic or special needs kid! Or at least two families for every special kid.
And if we can throw in lots of patience, forbearance, kindness, care, and love?
Then this World Autism “Awareness” Month can be renamed World Autism “Acceptance” Month.
And maybe one day we wouldn’t even need such a month.
Cos by then, the whole world would have entered into an inclusive space like that function hall.
And made that hall an inclusive community for everyone.
Of every ability.