As Communications Executive of both The Autism Research Foundation (TARF) and Athletes 4 Autism (A4A), I helped coordinate A4A’s filming with the NESN sports channel last February. The filming featured Sean Escobedo, a defenseman for the BU men’s ice hockey team at the time, and his A4A buddy Derek. Although Derek was one of A4A’s first participants, this was the first time that I had met him and his mom. When we were introduced, Derek barely acknowledge me, something I had expected would happen as it is a behavior I have experienced with other children who are on the autism spectrum.
Throughout the beginning of the filming, every time Derek did something well, he would look to the hockey bench for approval and praise. As an observer, I would cheer Derek on to show my support and to prove that I was a friendly face he could count on. I loved that he was already looking for me; that quick bond is unusual for kids with autism, but we had made it! It was the greatest compliment anyone could have ever given me, until I realized that Derek was actually eagerly waiting for his mother’s approval, not mine. Talk about au-kward!
But I continued to encourage him anyways — I was so genuinely proud of the progress he was making even though I had just been reminded how insignificant I was to Derek.
Later on during the filming, Derek’s mom was being interviewed by the NESN staff. Derek was aware of this, yet he still continued to look to the bench for approval. There I was, cheering on Derek like I was his personal fan. When Derek’s mom was able to resume her duties as head cheerleader, I noticed that Derek would still stop and wait to continue his lesson, even after his mom praised his play.
I then realized that my constant encouragement had finally stuck in Derek’s mind and now he was waiting for my approval. Turned out, I wasn’t insignificant like his initial reaction had made me feel. It was the opposite; I was significant, but just reminded so on Derek’s terms, not when I tried to pull it from him with eye contact.
Needless to say, I made a lifelong friend that afternoon and learned a lifelong lesson. Now, when Derek walks into an A4A lesson, I am proud to say that I am one of the first people he looks for and greets with a big hug. And I will always be — less obviously — waiting for it.
— Kelly Landrigan