Multiracial boy sitting on brown leather chair
wearing a white polo shirt with the words "stand
against restraints, seclusion, and bullying by
About a week was I looking for a recent picture of my son stimming as my annual contribution to Paula Durbin-Westby's Autism Acceptance Year site, and came across one of my favorite recent photos of my son. I decided that this would be his official Autism Acceptance Month photo this year. But why I made this decision requires the story of how he came to be the proud owner of what I believe is the only white polo shirt with the provocative words "Stand Against Restraint, Seclusion, and Bullying by Teachers" manufactured anywhere, to date. That slogan was emblazoned on t shirts and is now part of the history of the protests brought to the very door of the Judge Rotenberg Center in the course of a valiant war to release one of the few tapes of sustained torture that survived the purging of evidence related to charges brought against the center over the many years of its existence. So here is the story.
Mustafa was one of the first customers to order a t shirt created by autistic activist Lydia Brown, for those of us who were families fighting against maltreatment of autistic children in school placements of all kinds. By this time Emily Holcomb was safe and Chris Baker's petition letter was being passed through all internet social networking channels. No one knew that Cheryl McCollins would come down like the wrath of the Lord on the JRC in court and request the court release the video of the 30 hours of torture her son Andre suffered at the hands of staff be released to the media. Everyone got their new t shirts and were happy. Problem was, once the shirt was on him, Mu would not take his off. As happens with some children, he liked the shirt and wanted that shirt on every day. Of course it began to fade from frequent washing. And there was no guarantee that he would like a new identical t shirt as much. More importantly, he needed to dress more formally for some of the places we were going and that t shirt was too casual. I posed the problem to Lydia and asked if she could do me a favor that might make both Mu and I happy. The result is the white polo shirt in the photo above. Even though the writing beautifully stitched on the right breast area makes special needs service professionals wince, they regularly compliment him on the how great the white shirt looks against his dark tan complexion.
The magnitude of what this photograph means to me becomes clear when it is realized that although Mu did not choose to stop whistling while I was taking the photo, he did look right at the camera. He is, by nature, someone who does not look directly at anyone, so when he does it means you have been given a gift. This is also the first photo in which he is beginning to look like the man he will become. And that small sign of a different operating system, his autistic eyes, look for a brief instant directly into mine. If you have spent any time around autistic adults and they grace you with those eyes you will recognize the eyes of your children and catch your breath. The feeling is one of finding a long lost cousin of your child at a family reunion. You see the eyes, even in complete strangers, and you don't have to ask. Even when they don't say "I am autistic", you know.
It came to me recently that one of the many reasons I care so much for all of these activists, and all those autistic children and adults they fight for, is because they have, regardless of color, my son's eyes. When they are able to look directly at me for an instant, it is a gift and a surprise, and at that instant I remember my son and how much we love him. I "see" my autistic son is growing up.