Originally published in The Chattanooga Times Free Press
In a month where there seems no end to disasters, scandals, and threats, I celebrated my birthday looking for a ray of hope. Can a whiff of integrity emerge from a whistle blower’s urgent concerns that apparently link our president, the Ukraine, and extortion? Will our faith in leadership mean that floods and fires aren’t our nation’s future. Maybe, we’ll even have the courage to control mass shootings. Alternating between holding my breath and large noisy sighs, my hubby and I went off to the movies for a bit of escapism. Who knew that the ray of hope would show up with the popcorn.
My faith in humanity was reignited watching The Peanut Butter Falcon. What a birthday present! With its Down Syndrome star and his tale of overcoming obstacles, following dreams, and embracing humanity, this movie hit the spot. As the hero slogged through marshes and forest, battled threats of unpredictable nature and violent humans, and raised up questionable allies, there wasn’t a dry eye in the house. When he finally got his dream of competing in a wrestling match, as bizarre as that was, we reveled in the integrity, faith, and courage portrayed on screen. Maybe now Down Syndrome folks will not only be accepted, but supported.
The Peanut Butter Falcon wasn’t the only inspiring story for my birthday. A blind young singer with autism performed on the television show, America’s Got Talent. Kodi Lee impressed the audience with his piano playing and haunting voice. America was wowed, too, and voted him the season’s winner. Are we reaching a new phase in human evolution? Maybe disabilities, particularly the brain-related ones, are no longer a sure path to isolation and despair.
My optimism for the future got a lift from a video clip of a young student and her autistic friend yukking it up in the school cafeteria. The young lady was inviting the autistic boy to be her prom date. When she gets voted prom queen there were cute photos of the two wearing fancy prom clothes and the biggest smiles you’ve ever seen. That was almost as heart warming as the new that Philadelphia’s football team had created a special room for autistic kids where they could enjoy the game comfortably. Go Eagles!
We need this new humane perspective given the increase in autism as shown by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) data.. The latest report estimates a 15 percent increase in autism in our nation’s children. The numbers are sobering but they do boost awareness. You can find all kinds of autism information online including autism events, books, and T-shirts.
Despite the hope generated, I’m well aware of the huge barriers for young people who are intellectual different. Some of my reservations stem from knowing what my younger brother experienced with Asperger’s Syndrome, a high performance form of autism. His brain got him into an excellent university, but his lack of social skills got him bullied beyond tolerance. The ‘neurotypical’ folks don’t appreciate the utter candor that often accompanies autism. Nor is the physical awkwardness given a pass. We had to rescue him from the campus dormitory where his classmates had locked him up. For his safety, he couldn’t go back.
No wonder my greatest birthday present was seeing human kindness uplifted, awarded, and rewarded. If we can tap into our better natures like this, maybe we can ride out the coming political storms and environmental disasters. We’re definitely going to need help. Try a little tenderness. It can’t hurt and it may save us all.