When Bob Cornelius took a photo of his son Christopher’s school project on Back to School Night, he didn’t take a close look at the answers. It wasn’t until he got home that Cornelius had the chance to really read what Christopher had written.
He found that his son’s answer to one question in particular broke his heart.
On the line where Christopher had been asked to list his friends, his son had written, “no one.”
According to Pop Sugar, reading that response was devastating for Cornelius. Christopher is autistic, and seeing his loneliness expressed so starkly was difficult to bear. Cornelius shared the photo in a Facebook post, where he writes about his reaction to his son’s words:
“Never have five letters cut so deep, and they weren’t even directed at me … it was just an overly simplistic statement that spoke volumes.”
Cornelius referenced the viral story of the college football star who sat with an autistic boy at lunch. That story had a happy ending. But as Cornelius points out, there were many days when the boy in that story sat alone, ignored by the children around him:
“If that football player had not sat down next to that child, and if it hadn’t become a national news story, that kid would still be sitting by himself today.
And it’s not their fault…. that’s the saddest part. They were clearly not taught to embrace and accept the differences of others. Not by their teachers, which would have been nice, had they thought to do so, but by their parents.
I don’t mean to imply that parents that don’t have this conversation with their kids are bad people, but only that somewhere in between working, soccer practice, and homework, it never occurred to them to have this particular conversation. I’m sure that if Christopher were typical … I would have not had this conversation with him either.”
Cornelius explains that Christopher has two older brothers and knows about things like sleepover parties. Without any friends of his own, however, his son ends up missing out on these simple childhood pleasures. The result is an unhappy conversation like this one:
“‘Can I have sleepover?’ Christopher has asked.
‘Sure, buddy….with whom?’ As a response, he would flap his arms and stim instead of answering. He didn’t have an answer because he didn’t have a name.
Because he didn’t have a friend.
He’s never had a friend.
He just turned eleven.
And because he’s had no friends….there was no one to invite.
And I don’t have a solution. I don’t have an answer. The reality is that I have to rely on the compassion of others to be incredibly understanding in order just to sit next to him, attempt to engage him, and make him feel included.”
Cornelius says he understands that his bright, engaging son exhibits behavior that people find embarrassing or strange (like flapping his arms, making loud, guttural noises, or asking the same question dozens of times). However, he’s writing to ask for some extra understanding and empathy:
“Not from you guys, but from your children. As far as I know, (save for one time), Christopher’s classmates have never been overtly cruel to him. What they have done, however, is to exclude him. And frankly, I understand this. His classmates are delayed as well, but most not as much as Christopher. They are figuring out how to interact socially every day, and because Christopher cannot engage them in a typical way, he gets left behind…excluded.”
Until he saw Christopher’s “no one” response, Cornelius didn’t realize that his son was completely aware of this exclusion. Now there’s only one way this dad can think of to help. He writes:
“The only solution I can come up with is to share this with you and ask that you have a conversation with your kids. Please tell them that children with special needs understand far more than we give them credit for. They notice when others exclude them.
They notice when they are teased behind their back… they are very much in tune when they are treated differently from everyone else.”
Cornelius asks parents to share heartwarming stories about special needs children and to teach their own kids to be more inclusive. He knows that it takes a brave child to buck the “group mentality” that ends up ostracizing kids like Christopher.
“The child that will finally reach out to [Christopher], that will help him, that will include him, will be the kindest child I have ever had met,” Cornelius concludes. “And that child will be Christopher’s first true friend.”