two boys painting his faces

At first I was afraid of him – this 16 year old boy who had a couple inches and several more pounds on me. His frame was what many would refer to as “big-boned” and my 16 year old self remembers thinking, “he could take me out if he really wanted to.” Yet there he was, a “gentle giant” as I affectionately nicknamed him. Greeting everyone who walked into the room with a warm smile and handshake. Oh, how his eyes lit up when he smiled.  It startled me when he grabbed my wrist, until I noticed the gentleness of his touch as he led me towards a spot at the table. That’s how he communicated. He communicated through gestures, eye gazes, and vocalizations, physically showing others what he wanted or needed and expressing joy, dislike, and curiosity through the inflections of the sounds he created. I was intrigued. If he could communicate without using words, what else could he do? What else did he know?

To the teen who introduced me to the beautiful mystery of autism, I wear blue for you. 

He was a runner and he loved stairs. We spent many hours at the top of the staircase singing songs, lining up toys, and tracing shapes and letters with our fingers. He often did not speak unless he was prompted, but when he spoke it was in the sweetest sing-songy voice. It was mesmerizing watching as he held objects up towards the light, manipulating them, examining them closely before returning them to the ground to form a pattern. He seemed oblivious of the world around him but occasionally his eyes would lock with mine.  He’d smile, giggle, and show affection through hugs or sneaky kisses on the forehead.  One day at a restaurant, I overheard the most adorable sing-songy voice coming from the booth behind me and I immediately knew to whom it belonged. Sure enough, there he was at his grandma’s side but to my surprise he was reading a book, The Giving Tree, out loud.

To the child who taught me to never underestimate abilities, I wear blue for you. 

He loved video games and watching movies. When I came over he knew we were going to play outside or be active indoors before even considering electronic options. With his sister, we explored creeks, visited the zoo, fished, built forts, and occasionally enjoyed a sweet frozen yogurt treat. Each outing revealed to me more of his interests, perspectives, and uniqueness. He demonstrated expertise in many topics as he kept me up-to-date with the latest video games and shared fascinating scientific facts. Through these conversations, he revealed great confidence in whom he was as an individual. He didn’t seem to mind if others did not share similar interests – he knew what he liked, and that’s what mattered.

To the boy who reminded me to confidently embrace my inner nerd, especially when it comes to my passions, I wear blue for you. 

He was around four years old when we first met, and it was only in passing at work. I could not stop watching him as he skipped on his toes down the hall, flapping his hands at his sides. His mom looked exhausted and he took no notice to her calling his name. He just kept flapping, eyes glossed over, bouncing on his toes, seemingly lost in his own little world. Fast forward a few years later to a fundraising event. As I was talking to a friend the little guy came over, toe-walking and flapping, and exclaimed, “Drink, please!” In this instant he grabbed my friend’s smoothie without permission and took a sip before running off. Needless to say, my friend was livid. I, on the other hand, could not contain my excitement. This child had come a long way from from not speaking or recognizing his name to making a request to a stranger.

To the child who taught me to celebrate the little victories, I wear blue for you.

I could not get over the contagiousness of their smiles the first day I met them. These brothers radiated pure joy and zeal for life.  Within minutes of walking in the front door, I was greeted by smiles and hugs before being summoned to pick out my costume for the day. I don’t know why they asked me to choose a costume; I always ended up being assigned to Thomas the Tank Engine. Dressed as Mario, Luigi, and Thomas the Tank Engine, we proudly paraded around at the nearby park, played baseball, and shot hoops – it was quite the sight! They knew no strangers and when I spent time with them, all worries and pressures of the world faded away. How could two boys who experience several unique challenges be so joyful, loving, and accepting?

To the brothers who beautifully exemplified the importance of acceptance and unconditional love, I wear blue for you. 

Autism Spectrum Disorder, or Autism, is a neurodevelopmental disorder that is characterized by deficits in communication (speaking in an abnormal tone, repeating words or phrases, taking things too literally) and social skills (lack of interest in other people, seeming detached, difficulty understanding non-verbal cues), as well as the presence of restricted, repetitive behaviors (hand flapping, finger flicking, rocking, spinning). It affects one in 68 children in the United States and is a spectrum disorder, meaning that there is a wide degree of variation in how individuals are affected. Chances are you, your family, your friends, or someone you know is affected by autism in some way.

My life was forever changed when I met the 16 year old with autism and since then, I have cared for and worked with countless children, adolescents, and adults on the spectrum. Each individual has been a good and perfect gift, strategically brought into my life to teach me about perseverance, selflessness, love, compassion, and understanding. To the parents, siblings, caregivers, families, and friends of those with autism, I wear blue for you. Thank you for sharing your loved ones and allowing them to bless the lives of those around them in indescribable ways.

This month is Autism Awareness Month, and I challenge you to educate yourself about autism and to talk to individuals affected by autism in some way.

For whom do you wear blue?