To: The students of the high school my son, Nolan, attends:
I’ve never met most of you, but that’s understandable given that, give or take, there are 900 students there. As far as you who, like Nolan, are sophomores, the last time I saw some of you was when I used to volunteer at the elementary school you attended with my son. You’ve all grown and changed so much. I probably wouldn’t even recognize most of you if we passed each other on the street.
April is Autism Acceptance Month, which up until last year was National Autism Awareness Month. I could bore you with facts regarding its history (it began in 1972) and Autism-related statistics (1 in 44 children are on the Autism spectrum, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention), but I won’t. I’ll just say it matters to me because Nolan has Autism and is nonverbal.
To be honest, I’ve never really understood the concept of highlighting or devoting 28 to 31 days to a certain topic or cause. Do we forget about all the tremendous accomplishments by Booker T. Washington and Frederick Douglass when Black History Month ends? Do we stop advocating for and trying to protect the kids who suffer at the hands of people who aren’t fit to be called mom or dad when National Child Abuse Prevention Month ends? Of course not.
Autism was, is, and always will be front and center in our household when the calendar flips to April 1st, and it still will be when May arrives. Nolan doesn’t let my wife, Cindy, and I forget that life in our house is never boring even though over the years I’ve told people, half-jokingly, that I wish it was. We’re reminded of that with the occasional 3 or 4 a.m. wake-up call that typically ends with a mighty crash 17 or 18 hours later. We’re reminded by sudden burst of tears and/or anger and headbutts when everything seemed right in his world just 30 seconds ago. We’re reminded when he’s waving a pair of socks in our face when he wants to take another car ride when the last one ended less than an hour ago.
It all gets to be overwhelming at times for Cindy and me, but we love Nolan more than we could ever tell you. I’d like to believe most of you picked up on that the years either one or both of us visited your elementary school classroom to explain Autism to you in terms that we hoped you could understand so that you hopefully could try to understand Nolan a little bit better.
Oh, the questions you would ask! They would range from seeking an explanation of Nolan’s actions (“Why does he make those noises?”) to things that make you go hmmmm … (“Does Nolan like to ride on boats?”). But one question that frequently came up was when, or if, Nolan would be able to talk. I’d like to think that maybe it was your way of hoping he could communicate the same way you do and be your friend.
So, here we are in 2022, and the developmental gap between you and Nolan has only widened. He spends most of his school days rotating between two special education classrooms, so you likely only get a glimpse of him here and there. And I know that you don’t always see him at his best. I can only imagine the thoughts running through your brain last May if you saw him melt down as he exited the school bus, which in turn required at least three staff members to get him into the building and triggered a phone call home from his teacher. I assume some of his actions elicit eyerolls, a mouthed “WTF?”, or less than kind remarks from a few of you. I wish that wasn’t the case, but I know better.
Some of you might tell me that nothing has changed since you first met Nolan, whenever that might have been. I would look you square in the eye and counter that nothing could be further from the truth.
He’s thriving in school. He received an academic letter last fall for earning at least a 3.5 grade-point average his freshman year, and he’s received two letters from the Wisconsin State Assemblyman who represents our district congratulating him on his success in the classroom. Maybe his curriculum doesn’t include having to know the Pythagorean Theorem or dissect the finer points of Shakespeare’s works, and maybe there are days he needs a healthy dose of sensory breaks, but that doesn’t matter. He has assignments he’s expected to complete and he’s doing that, obviously quite well.
He's a bona fide high school athlete as a member of the Adaptive Sports League’s soccer and wiffleball teams, and he also earned a letter for doing so last year. The young man whose participation the adaptive sports programs at the local YMCA was at best minimal – and who typically pitched a fit – is now capable of dribbling a soccer ball well without griping, willingly playing catch, and staying in a game as long as he’s required to.
He has a job folding towels in the lunchroom, and he gets paid to do so. On occasion, he’s been asked to clean tables or assist with the menu board. He’s done a good job when asked to do something that’s not part of his routine.
I could tell you that like most of you, Nolan has a very healthy appetite and perhaps spends a little too much time enjoying the best of what social media has to offer – in his case, YouTube Kids is his guilty pleasure rather than TikTok or Facebook. But hopefully I’ve helped you see that perhaps there aren’t as many differences between you and my son as you might think.
You might point out to me that it’s hard to get up close and personal with someone who might only say ‘hello’ via the communication device on his iPad if you approached him. You also probably wouldn’t take me up on an invitation to come watch one of Nolan’s wiffleball games this spring, but that’s OK. As much as I would like for him to be a part of your world, and you a part of his, I only ask that you give him, as well as any disabled individual you encounter, one thing:
The world can be an unpredictable – and at times, frightening – place for Nolan. The fact he’s learned to navigate in it as well as he has is something that makes me very proud. It also gives both Cindy and me hope that he’ll continue to amaze us long after he turns 21 in less than five years for what we hope eventually will be a successful, post-school life.
I’ll close by admitting to being an overprotective parent, as my mother was with me. I’m also a parent who always will advocate for his son. You might see Nolan do a lot of things you don’t understand, and perhaps never will. I would invite you to look deeper, see the positives, which are indeed there, and yes, accept him for who he is. I’m biased, but I think he’s a pretty extraordinary young man.