“You have your lunch?”
“You know where to go?”
“Uh-h, yes sir.”
“I’m very proud of you.”
“Thank you, Dad!”
With that exchange concluded Julian was out of the car and on his way into the home of our local arts council to begin a few days of volunteer work for a children’s art camp. As I watched him disappear into the building I felt pangs of anxiousness, I admit to having some separation anxiety when it comes to Julian, and rushes of joy. He was doing something for someone else and was excited about it.
When Martina and I first discussed the idea of Julian doing volunteer work it was a matter of finding a situation where he wouldn’t be overwhelmed but would have the opportunity to contribute in his own way, a setting that he would feel comfortable in. It had to be somewhere that would allow for his autism and recognize that he needed specific instruction. This turned out to be perfect.
The camp director and I agreed that it would probably be best if Julian worked a half day, we weren’t sure how he would handle a full day. This was a first for him. When I arrived to pick him up I found my way to one of the large meeting halls where the campers were having lunch. Kindergarteners were everywhere, it was noisy and animated. I didn’t see Julian, he was in the restroom, but immediately spotted the camp director.
She approached me, face beaming and clasping her hands together. “He’s been awesome! We’d love to have him stay for the full day.” Turns out working with small kids fit Julian just fine. She informed me that his demeanor was calm and patient with them. His job was to help them with various art projects. During breaks he would enthrall the youngsters with his drawings. He took requests from them, the most popular being Mickey Mouse and the Disney princesses. Boy, talk about being in his wheelhouse. I was quite happy to leave and return later so that he could complete a full day.
When I finally did return to pick him up I found him in the office sitting with a little boy who was hanging on Julian’s every word. He was telling the boy about cryptids, mythological creatures such as the Yeti or the Chupacabra. At that very moment it occurred to me just how right this was for Julian. Though he is nearly nineteen years of age, socially he’s closer to that kindergarten aged child than to an adult. He’s able to converse with children on a comfort level that is easy for him. They find his interests fascinating. There is a sweet innocence that is apparent when watching him with children.
The director couldn’t stop talking about how great he was with them, in fact when his week was done she asked if it would be possible to have him involved with more of their camps for kids. Julian thought it was a great idea and I was overjoyed for him. He truly was happy because he’d helped someone else.
On our way home I asked him what it was like working with all those kids.
“It was fun, I like it, it’s kind of like working with animals.” Now understand, that’s the highest compliment Julian could pay those kids because he loves animals and thinks anytime with them is awesome. So, in Julian’s worldview equating a group of kindergarteners with animals is a very good thing.
The weekend following his week of camp work Julian volunteered to help man a booth for our local First in Families chapter, a group that assists families and persons with autism. It was part of a communtiy outreach day sponsored by the ARC. As was the case with the camp this was something new for him. In this particular instance he would have to talk about autism as he explained, to those stopping by the booth, the services provided by FIF.
Given his reluctance to engage in prolonged dialogue about his autism Martina and I weren’t sure how he would handle this, but we reminded him that this was more about the help that FIF gives to people who really need it and that he was doing a very good thing. We also pointed out that by doing this he was showing everyone that autism didn’t stop him from doing productive things. Also that this, once again, was an example of him thinking of others as opposed to himself. When we arrived at the park where the event was held Wanda, the chapter director, was there waiting for him and eager for him to participate.
Martina and I decided to make ourselves scarce, lest he fixate on us being around and not fully engage in the task at hand. We found a place where he couldn’t see us but we could watch him. I can’t tell you how proud we were to watch him shake hands and carefully read from the pamphlet as he explained about FIF to the constant stream of visitors. It was a really good day for Julian. As we were leaving, Julian had already gone to the car, a lady stopped me.
“Excuse me, was that your son at the First In Families booth?”
“Yes, his name is Julian.”
“Well I want you to know that he was so sweet and considerate that I decided to participate and contribute to First In Families. All because he was so nice and took time to read every word of that flyer so that I understood what they were about. He’s such a special young man.”
Yea, I get that a lot.