A speech given to the student body of Montclair Renaissance Middle School during Autism Awareness Month by Bryan Lonegan, father of a 16-year-old boy with autism
Good morning, Renaissance.
When Reena (English teacher) asked me to speak here about autism awareness, I figured that it would be easy enough. After all, I’ve done a lot of public speaking about autism to teachers and parents at meetings and conferences.
But as I prepared my comments for today I thought, wait, you guys already know about autism. You’ve seen autism through Arthur. You know that kids with autism have a hard time talking, that you’re never really sure if they understand when you talk to them, that they can have strange behaviors and can be socially awkward.
So, I realized that I don’t have to tell you what autism means to you. But I also realized that you have no idea what you mean to autism. Because you guys have no idea what you have done these past three years – that you have no idea that through your patience, tolerance, acceptance, and love, all of you have changed Arthur’s life.
You first have to understand that from the age of three to 12, Arthur lived in a tower. I don’t mean a real tower but a metaphorical tower. See, when he was younger, Arthur went to special autism schools far from where we lived at the time. He would have to travel an hour by himself in a special ed bus to get there and get home. He spent every day in a class with five other autistic kids, none of whom could talk or interact with each other, each with their own unusual behavior, and many who would have meltdowns whenever something went wrong.
These schools told us that they had to teach Arthur how not to act autistic. They told us that he would never be able to do higher math, or read books, or understand science, or social studies. They told us that they had to prepare him for his future living in some group home and that the most we could hope for was that he’d work at the back of a McDonalds. So Arthur spent his days at school stringing beads or putting hair combs into little plastic sleeves.
When Arthur came home from school he wanted to go play with the neighborhood kids. But when we would take him outside to play he would run up to the kids and try to talk to them, but they would just laugh at him and leave.
Now think of what you were doing when you were between the ages of three and 12. What were you doing? You were going to school. You were making new friends every day. You were playing games and sports. You were learning to read, to do math. You were finding your own interest in music and art. And you were learning from each other.
So like I said, for Arthur, it was as if he had been locked in a tower – isolated and alone. By the time he was 12, he could say some words but could not talk in sentences. He had no friends. He seemed very angry and depressed.
His mother and I decided that we had to do something different. We heard that in Montclair they did things differently. We heard about this school called Renaissance, and we decided to move here.
When we first moved to Montclair, Arthur went to Bradford. At first, he was in a segregated special ed. class. The plan was that we would introduce Arthur to the regular 5th grade very gradually. We would start at an hour a day and very gradually add time to see how much he could handle.
Well, the first day they took him to a regular ed. class, Arthur messed up all the plans. After an hour, they said “Ok Arthur. Let’s go back to special ed.” But Arthur refused. And from that time on he was in general education.
I can’t tell you how proud I am of him for sticking up for himself.
Grammar school, however, was one thing. The big test was going to be middle school. The experts told us we were making a mistake. They said that we were setting Arthur up for failure, that he would be overwhelmed around regular kids and would not be able to learn. And worse: They said that you kids would eat him alive. That at best you would ignore him and at worst would bully him.
So we weren’t sure going to Renaissance was going to work – until one October morning in 6th grade.
I dropped Arthur off at the front of the school and watched as he walked to the front door. As I watched I saw Rikhembe tiptoe up behind Arthur. He gave Arthur a gentle shove. Arthur was startled but looked at Rikhembe and smiled and shoved him back. And the two of them raced to the front door.
I am not ashamed to tell you that I sat in my car then and cried. For the first time in his life, Arthur wasn’t an autistic boy locked away in a tower but just a boy and he had a friend.
The three years Arthur has been here with you have been the three most important years of his life. You have showed that the experts were wrong. You made him a member of your community. He went from being a sad, frustrated and lonely boy to a kid who is happy and loves meeting new people. You freed him from the tower.
You taught Arthur to talk. It’s true. He did not start talking in complete sentences until he came to Renaissance. It wasn’t the teachers who taught Arthur to talk in sentences; it was you. Every time you talked to him, even when he did not respond, you were teaching him how to talk. You freed him from the tower.
And you were the ones who taught him about Disney and Mickey Mouse and Captain Hook and Mr. Sneed. I could kill you for that. But you freed him from the tower.
I have a picture of Arthur on the baseball team. You have to understand something; the experts said that something like that could never happen. Now, I have to admit that Arthur has a lot to learn about being on a team. For example, when your team is losing you don’t stand in right field yelling “we’re never going to win.” Still, you freed him from the tower.
I could go on and on, but the point is, you were the best teachers Arthur ever had. Every time you included him in a group project, every time you sat with him at lunch, every time you played soccer with him, or walked with him on a class trip – you taught him to be a kid and you freed him from the tower.
He still has a long way to go. Outside of school, he still does not have any friends. He doesn’t know how to get on a phone and just talk, or how to hang out in somebody’s house and play video games, or go with friends to the movies or to parties. That’s all hard for him because all that requires strong language and social skills and that is the problem with autism. But I am sure you will try to teach him.
Funny, over these past three years you have studied about the brave men and women of history who struggled for social justice. But little did you know that every day that you allowed Arthur to be a part of your life, you were also fighting for social justice. It was not very long ago that kids like Arthur weren’t even allowed in school. And what you did here with Arthur, well, sadly, it still doesn’t happen everywhere.
You should all be proud Renaissance. You stood up for justice and have proven that just because somebody is different does not mean they should be treated differently or kept in a tower.
The next big challenge is going to be high school. It will be a bigger school. There will be a lot of new kids who don’t know him. There will be a new way of doing things and greater expectations. But I know that you guys will be there for him.
But as time goes on, you are going to go different ways. You are going to go to college, start careers, and families. I am not sure what Arthur will be in the future – it is kind of hazy. But you have shown that he will always be part of a community and that he sure isn’t going back into that tower.
You are tomorrow’s teachers, lawyers, firefighters, doctors, entertainers and athletes. You are tomorrow’s leaders. And you will decide whether people with autism – people like Arthur – will be put away in towers or will live with us in our communities.
I know you are going to do the right thing so long as you keep a piece of Arthur here in your heart, the way Arthur will always keep a piece of you in his.
Thank you, Renaissance.