By Christopher Morey
Recently my wife, myself, and another parent were invited to speak with 24 students who are involved in the Autistic Peer Mentoring program at Traverse City West Senior High. Our son, Guy, is autistic and two of the students who were present work with him in this program.
After exchanging huge volumes of information in a very brief amount of time in the hallway, we went into the classroom. We three parents sat down on one side of a table, facing the group of students.
Our different experiences exemplified the tremendous range of behaviors and abilities found in autism. Our son loves words, but frustration with his own inability to communicate effectively when he was younger resulted in over a decade of destructive and violent behavior. The son of the other mom was never violent, but does not speak.
We talked about being the parents of autistic children and answered questions from the students. As our conversation went beyond the allotted time, the teacher interrupted and gave the students an opportunity to leave. None did.
Talking about these experiences, and about our children, is always emotionally intense. Doing so in front of such a wide-open and engaged audience was nearly overwhelming.
By the time we had to go some of the students were in tears. A lot of the rest of us were barely keeping a lid on.
I was amazed.
In the habituated continuity of our lives we easily bypass moments of essential beauty, though they may be right in front of us.
Our time in that classroom with those students was such a moment.
With openness, sincerity and respect, these high school seniors are making a heartfelt effort to reach across the formidable wilderness of barriers that define autism, and to genuinely understand.
How often do any of us do that, with anyone?
We try to quantify the value of this program in terms of benefits; benefits to the autistic kids and adults (my son is 21) and benefits to the student peers.
Be sure; those benefits are there. It is incredible and heart-warming to see how my son and his two peer mentors interact. How at ease he is and how much fun they are having.
But after getting a sense of who these students are, and of what they have brought to the Peer Mentoring project, I see yet another benefit:
We should value this Peer Mentor program not only because it is profoundly beneficial to all of the participants — but because each of those high school seniors, no matter where they go or what they do in their lives, will bring with them their hearts.
For that, the whole world is better.
About the author: Christopher Morey and his wife Kathleen live in the Traverse City area with their son Guy. They also have a 26-year-old daughter who lives out of state. Christopher Morey works as a network administrator.
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