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The Best Thing

This guest post is by Jennifer Bittner who blogs at Seriously Not Boring. Jennifer and her family have been in the news recently for a video of her son with autism’s special connection with Sophie, the sea lion during a trip to Smithsonian’s National Zoo. The full post can be seen here.

I never would have dreamed that a simple trip to the National Zoo could turn into an opportunity to share autism awareness. It all started when my family was at the Sea Lion exhibit and one appeared at the glass, staring at my 7-year-old son, Alex. The beautiful animal began to shadow his movements and Alex cried out, “He LIKES ME!” Little did we know that “He” was actually a female named Sophie who regularly initiates games with visitors. I began to record the encounter and the two played together for several minutes. Alex, who has an Autism Spectrum Disorder, shouted joyfully, “THIS IS THE BEST THING OF MY LIFE!” He often struggles with feelings of isolation, as do many children with special needs, and to see him so in sync with his new friend struck a chord deep within my heart.

When I finally reviewed the video I began to sense it was something that I should share, due in large part to Alex’s reaction to Sophie. I struggled to decide if I should mention autism, wondering if that would appear sensationalistic. I realized it could be an opportunity for positive awareness and might help counteract the stigma so often associated with “disabilities”. It was also possible that my son’s heartfelt cry of, “He likes me!” might resonate with other special-needs parents who have children struggling with friendships. I still felt it was necessary to proceed with caution, and hoped that a cute video of Alex playing with a sea lion on a good day would not downplay the struggles that are often faced by individuals with any sort of special needs.

I was reminded of the saying, “If you’ve seen one child with autism, you’ve seen one child with autism.” My son is just one child who is part of a wide SPECTRUM, and every individual is affected differently. Finally, there was a risk of Alex being defined by a label. He is enthusiastic, creative, and funny, and autism is just a part of who he is. Of course, the most important person to consult on all this was Alex himself. He is proud of his unique brain, and likes to say, “Different isn’t bad, it’s just different.” After he gave permission I posted “Sea Lion Shadow" to YouTube with a few sentences of explanation and waited to see if it received any reaction.

Within 24 hours a local news station had requested permission to air it and interest continued to spread. The highs and lows that followed were incredibly exciting and exhausting. By the end of the first week the video had been viewed over 90,000 times on YouTube, shown on numerous local and national television broadcasts, and featured on websites all over the world. A news station where I live eventually requested an interview, but that felt much more exposed than a shadowy video and we were initially hesitant. We agreed after the reporter reassured us that Alex would be treated with respect and not just portrayed as a boy with autism. You can watch the interview to see that Alex chatted away and was a complete natural on camera. I am incredibly proud of how well he handled such an eventful time

I am still processing everything that happened during our media whirlwind. There were some hard lessons along the way, but the positive has seemed to far outweigh the negative. I hope that means our brief time in the public eye helped in some way to contribute to the greater good. I am glad that a video of Alex and “the best thing” of his life made some people smile. I can say it was all worth it if even one person was helped by hearing our story, or just one pair of eyes was opened to see special needs in a new light. The result would be a kinder world for my son to live in. And that would be the BEST THING.

Learn how the world will Light It Up Blue for Autism Awareness on April 2

The Autism Speaks blog features opinions from people throughout the autism community. Each blog represents the point of view of the author and does not necessarily reflect Autism Speaks' beliefs or point of view.