Getting to know Charlotte
Last evening I attended the Newtown Kindness Awards Ceremony in Connecticut. But before I tell you about the evening, I want to rewind here for a bit: I Googled to learn who Charlotte Bacon was on December sixth, when I received an email about Tate’s nomination for the Charlotte Bacon Kindness Awards. I did not learn much about Charlotte’s life when I searched the Internet but I did see stories about her death. However, last night I got a pretty good feel for whom Charlotte really was. I now know she was funny and sweet and often involved in mischief. I know her favorite color was pink. I know she wanted to be a vet some day, she loved dogs, and had a collection of stuffed dogs. I know she was loved by many people and adored by her own dog named, Lily, whom she loved in return. All evening I kept thinking, “She sounds a lot like my Sydney.” They would have been friends had they known each other.
Although I did not know who Charlotte Bacon was, ironically, I could recall the name of the young man who took her life. How wrong is that? The reason I remembered his name is because three years ago the media covered the story for days, plastering his name and face everywhere and alleging the reason he committed the horrible act was because he had autism. Our family is affected by autism and when autism is in the media it gets my attention. How much better would it have been for the media to remain very quiet about the name of the killer and instead be covering the kindnesses that have happened as a result of that incident? I now know there have been many. You might like to read more about Charlotte and the Newtown Kindness awards here: http://www.newtownkindness.org/who-we-are/meetcharlotte/
Charlotte’s parents would like her to be remembered for her life, not her death. To honor Charlotte’s life and to keep her memory alive they celebrate her birthday every year in an amazing way. They recognize children for their acts of kindness. Tate was nominated for a kindness award with his friends Ethan and Jordan after I wrote a thank you note to those boys and their classmates for their friendship with Tate. That thank you letter was published, and People Magazine did a story on the boys and the lunch buddy program. That article got the attention of a nice lady named Lara who nominated the boys for the award. Although thousands of children were nominated, only around forty were chosen to receive awards.
Seeing Tate standing on the stage tonight was such a proud moment for me. But, it was not only about the kindness factor. Tate has autism and before the ceremony began Tate was anxious. Tate has a lot of sensory issues and he was aggravated because I had dressed him in a shirt he did not like. He was annoyed because I had made him leave his treasured hoodie and cap at the hotel. He had just found out that his beloved watch was an hour off due to the time change, but he couldn’t decide if he wanted it on Connecticut time or Kansas time. And to top it all off, I could not tell him exactly what to expect or give him a solid timeframe for the evening’s events so he was nervous. Needless to say, Tate was stimming. Tate’s stims (stereotypic behaviors) can cause him to appear pretty odd to people who do not know him or understand autism. He grimaces and stiffens his arms and he talks about movies. For the hour leading up to the ceremony I must have heard several dozen times that the movie “Home” comes out March 27th in theaters and Tate reviewed with me who does all the main characters’ voices. Then he would rotate something about “Big Hero Six” and its DVD release date into the mix. I had resigned myself to seeing Tate stand on stage and stim. I knew everyone would be understanding. After all, we were in an auditorium with four hundred people who were promoting kindness. But, I still reassured and coached as best I could, hoping he’d be able to pull it off.
Shortly before the ceremony, he decided it was okay to “borrow Connecticut time” for his watch. That helped. We took a walk and got a drink of water. That also helped. Then I asked one of last years winners, Ryan, a very kind young man who we’d just met, to tell Tate exactly what to expect when he went onto the stage. That helped too. And, because we sat in the audience and listened to some great music for thirty minutes before he had to take the stage, Tate was much more relaxed when it was time for him to receive his award. He appeared calm, cool, and collected, and sauntered right out onto that stage like he owned the place. No one would have suspected that ninety minutes before he had been a wreck. And that is one of the reasons I was so proud. The amount of courage it took for Tate to go out on that stage was tremendous compared to most. But then, Tate is used to doing those things that come easy to the rest of us, while fighting all kinds of battles that we cannot see. The feel of a shirt, the insecurity of leaving his cap behind, the noise level, and dealing with people whose expectations are a mystery to him, are all things that make getting through the day so much more challenging to Tate. But he just keeps stepping up, trying to please us, and do the things we ask of him. He only had a limited understanding of what the award last night was about and he would rather have been watching television at the hotel but he did what I required of him and he did it well.
You might wonder why I thought it was important for Tate to be at the awards ceremony and accept the award on behalf of himself, Ethan and Jordan. Tate did not raise money for a great cause, he did not donate food to the homeless, or do any of the other great things many of the children there had done. Tate is making a difference in other ways. Tate is showing kids with autism and their parents that friendship is not an illusive goal but something that can really happen. Tate has friends in Ethan and Jordan and several other children at his school. It took a lot of hard work to make that happen. The lunch buddy program was one of the key ingredients in creating Tate’s friendships. That can happen in other schools too!
Ethan, Jordan, and others have sacrificed a lot of time and effort to teach Tate social skills and in doing so they had learned some things from Tate as well. The truth is: Ethan and Jordan were nominated for this award and did not want to accept the nomination unless Tate was included. Lara recognized the fact that Tate was not the only benefactor in their relationship and included Tate in the nomination at his friends’ request. I wanted Tate present to accept the award and help spread the message that kids should extend kindness to everyone, including their classmates with disabilities like autism. I wanted Tate present to accept the award and help spread the message that kids with autism can learn social skills, be kind, and make friends in spite of their disability. Ethan and Jordan had worked hard, but when it comes right down to it, so had Tate. Things that come so natural to the other boys are very hard for Tate but he is doing them!
I could have let Tate decide whether or not he came to Connecticut to accept the award, and we would have stayed home. After all, it was HIS award. But if I let Tate decide, he would rarely leave the house for anything. He would not have developed the skills he needed to be a friend or have a friend! I have to constantly remove Tate from his comfort zone and his comfort zone just keeps getting bigger and bigger, despite autism's best efforts to limit Tate. If you are a parent of a young child with autism reading, please understand: Keep pushing. Keep advocating. Keep mentoring. Do NOT stop. Do NOT allow your child to choose what is best for him or her. Do not allow autism to decide what is best for your child. This is hard work but the stakes are so high! Take it from an older mom with a boy who has done (and is doing) the hard work, it pays off!
I am very thankful for Charlotte Bacon’s life and her family. I am thankful Charlotte is being remembered in this way. I’m so honored Tate was chosen to receive a kindness award, and I’m determined not to forget Charlotte. Many thanks to the Bacon family for making the world a better place. The impact they are making is extraordinary. They will probably never realize the impact they have had on my life.