I briefly alluded to it before that one of my biggest challenges has been working with children with Autism. I am frightened because I do not want to add to their pain or mishandle them in any way. In 2010, I did a service trip out in Philadelphia and one of the service sites I found myself working in was called St. Edmunds Home for Children.
The purpose of the home is to serve children with several mental retardation and Autism. The worst of the worst cases that will need constant monitoring and round the clock care, and here I was to serve. First thought that came to mind? Shit.
Again, I mentioned I have this big fear of messing up. I don’t want to add to their pain or suffering or whatever it may be, and leave knowing that I had a part in their pain. What I came to find was quite the contrary.
The service group I was in showed up with about 11 total volunteers and the director of the home took us up and split us into different rooms. I was placed in this room, which was a light therapy setting, to help the children with their sensory issues. I meet a little girl, who I will call Shannon, and she was the most beautiful person ever.
Shannon was born perfectly fine. Into a loving home with amazing parents, but about 20 weeks into her life, she had a seizure. Her seizure caused permanent brain damage that the doctors feared she would become brain dead in a matter of years. Well, there she was, a 10 years old defying all odds to live and smiling all the way. She couldn’t speak or understand much, but her nurses mentioned that her sense for touch was excellent. She can feel when a person was by her side, but she also had a unique ability that not many children that suffered her illness have. She has the ability to love back.
I thought it was strange. I was told that she was borderline brain dead, but she had the ability to love? Gotcha. Well, here’s how I put my foot in my mouth.
Shannon was playing in the ball pit and the nurses asked if I could join her. Hesitant of course, I said sure, why not. She threw every ball she could find at my head. It was actually a bit annoying, but every time it would hit my head, she would laugh. So hell, throw away. They turned the lights off in the room and the light therapy session begins, which means most of the children fall right to sleep. That gave me the green light for my nap.
Instead of me taking my nap, Shannon found her way to me, and just hugged me as she began to fall asleep. Her nurse saw that and said, “Boy, that girl knows you have a beautiful heart to love. She’s trying to show you that she loves you too.” Naturally, I started crying. Wouldn’t be a normal service trip if I didn’t.
For the brief moment, I forgot all about her illness, her problems, all of it, and just appreciated the love that she was sharing. The way autistic children show love is pure, unconditional, and innocent as ever. Here’s where it gets better. She noticed that I was crying because a tear fell to her arm, looks up at me, wipes my tear, picks up a ball, throws it at my head, and falls right back to sleep. Amazing, huh?
That little girl is one of the many reasons I hope I am blessed enough to have a little girl of my own, but I continue to pray that I will show love the same way Shannon showed me. Unconditional.