It’s not easy to connect with people when you can’t talk. Or type. When you get so sensory overloaded you sometimes just want to run away or scream. And sometimes you do just that.
Few can understand what it is like to be in an autistic body that you can’t control. That sometimes just goes off without warning. Especially around cupcakes. Gotta eat it. Or a lake. Gotta splash. It is difficult to attend anything in public. But we try.
Ben is 17 and nonverbal. 1/3 of people with autism remain nonverbal. It’s the autism you don’t hear about on TV shows, or singing the anthem or at the White House. Ben’s autism is isolating but I know he doesn’t want to be alone. He sits at the edge of a group. It is how he can be a part of the group while still feeling safe.
Ben isn’t involved in any after school sports. But he likes to watch football games.
I asked the cheerleading coach, Alexis, whether Ben could be an assistant to the cheerleaders. She kindly said yes. But joining the cheerleading team was a shot in the dark. Could he connect? Would he even stay in the room? Would the girls make fun of him? Would he be too disruptive?
Ben’s mentors, Sue and Art, took turns going with him to the practices. He ran a few laps around the gym during warmup. He made snack bags to hand out to the girls, to connect. They put pictures on his iPad that he would look at throughout the day. And little by little everyone started getting used to each other.
Ben sometimes runs suddenly across the room. Or let’s out a loud shout. And the practice just goes on. No problem. Sometimes a smile sent his way. Always a high five. There are 36 cheerleaders and the routines are very athletic with jumps and towers of girls and catching- very impressive.
At the last practice, Ben handed out flowers to the girls. It was going to be during a game but the sensory mess of the noises, sights and smells would have overloaded Ben. He was so happy to do it. The girls were all amazing in how they were trying to connect with him.
When Ben handed out the flowers, he clicked on a message that Art had recorded on his ipad. It said “November is a month to be thankful. I am thankful to be part of this team. I am thankful I have made friends like you.”
Today I got an email from Alexis. She said…
"I can't put into words how amazing you all have been as a family to our team. From having Ben join our team with such a positive spirit that he brings to our team every practice, we are both amazed and so blessed as a team. Thank you from the bottom of OUR hearts for the snacks, the flowers, and the positive feedback you give our program. We are forever grateful for your wanting for Ben to be apart of this team and essentially our little cheerleading family. I don't think we could of put together a better match.”
When you meet someone and it just clicks, it’s a great feeling. Connecting to other people is an awesome and rewarding part of life. We are grateful to our village, to Art and Sue, and to the awesome cheerleaders and their coaches, Alexis and Amber, at Conard.
What are some ways that you connect?