Every year my autistic son Jacob and I take a trip together to scuba dive. The trip allows Jacob, who has high-functioning autism, to enjoy his favourite thing — the ocean — while honing his underwater diving skills. It also allows him to build his social skills. Jacob is forced to interact with new people, learn to communicate with others, and rely on people who are not part of his everyday world. These are all things that do not come easily to my son; he is usually the outlier. I prod him to engage in conversations but he does so reluctantly, if at all. And he rarely interacts with children his age.
This year’s adventure took place in Roatan, Honduras. On our first night there, Jacob brought a book to dinner and spent the evening engrossed in his own world while I spoke to the family next to us: retired police officers from New York, their daughter, and her family which included their 14-year-old grandson, Billy. I learned their granddaughter has a chromosomal abnormality, and their great-nephew has autism as well. Perhaps because of this, they understood the nuances of Jacob and how to draw him out without overwhelming him. After numerous prompts, Jacob actually closed the book and acknowledged our conversation.
The next morning on our way to the boat, Billy said hello to Jacob while we were passing by each other on the walkway. My son, with his head down, paused a second before replying with an almost inaudible, “Hi.” We continued to the boats with the other children to load his gear. The outfitter that we used for this vacation has children dive with their own instructors on one boat while their parents dive from another. At the end of the day I met Jacob and asked how his day was.
“Good, we saw a barracuda, and tangs, and eels.” As he continued to tell me all of the wonderful things he saw, Billy walked by.
“Bye, Jake! Have a good day!” he said.
In mid-sentence Jacob stopped and looked at me, surprised. I whispered to him, “Say thanks and you, too!” I often need to prompt him for appropriate responses, especially when he’s caught off guard.
We saw Billy and his family many times in the coming days; they were three hotel rooms down from us and we passed him and his younger brother playing lacrosse on their patio every morning. Billy always said hello to Jacob, going the extra step to ask him about his day. My eyes glistened under my sunglasses, and my heart skipped a beat when I glanced at my son and saw the positive impact a simple greeting from an older kid had on him. Jacob nodded hello and gave a tiny wave, happy to have made a friend on the trip.
One night at dinner, Jacob quietly slipped away from the group of adults I was speaking to and sat at another table, alone with his book. He was over stimulated and hot from the tropic air–he needed quiet. Or so I thought. A few minutes later I noticed Billy had pulled up a chair across from Jacob and was having an actual conversation with him. I watched the two volley words back and forth, the smile creeping into Jacob’s eyes as he shut his book and gave his attention to this older boy.
Later, I asked Jacob what they talked about. “Oh all sorts of stuff,” he said. “Billy asked me what I liked, and what my favourite things were. He asked me all about my book and what subjects I liked in school. He wanted to know if I was having fun and what my favourite part of the trip was.”
I don’t often witness children taking it upon themselves to include my autistic son. Billy’s kindness gave me hope in what’s been classified as Generation Me.
The rest of the week, every time Billy said hello, I didn’t have to prompt my son for a response. For the first time ever, Jacob gladly offered up a genuine, “Hi!” right back.
I have many photos to remind me of the wonderful time we had in Roatan, but my favourite memory was not caught on film. It was the impact Billy had on Jacob. The simple gesture of taking time from his day to recognise my son, and to interact with him, made a huge difference in my son’s self-esteem. He has enjoyed our previous scuba diving trips because of all the amazing things he has experienced underwater, but now he loved our weeklong adventure for what happened above water, too. I can’t thank Billy and his family enough for helping Jacob to have such an awesome week. I hope to see them on a future trip!
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