I put my son on the school bus this morning and sent him off to his first day of high school. He was so excited to go. He kept saying, “I get to make new friends!” He was smiling from ear to ear and dancing around the front yard as we waited for the bus to come. He doesn’t care about acting or looking cool. He just wants to go and make new friends. My son is awesome. My son also has autism.

While I am excited for him, I worry. He is so pure-hearted and trusting. As I smile and get him on the bus, I worry that kids will be mean to him, that he will be ignored, that he will get lost, that he will be a victim of ignorance or outright prejudice. At this point in his life, I’m not sure he understands what autism is or that he’s not like his typically developing peers. I’m not sure that he would even care because honestly, this kid has more fun than a lot of people can even imagine. His inner world keeps him incredibly entertained, and for someone on the spectrum, he is also very social. He wants to be liked and to make people laugh.

I worry about how he’s perceived. We’ve all heard – or maybe even MADE – the joke about “riding the short bus” to school. You know, the joke that those who do ride the smaller, special needs buses are lacking intelligence. My kid rides one of those buses. My kid doesn’t lack intelligence. My kid just needs a little extra patience to be given him. His intelligence just works differently, and there is nothing wrong with that.

Last year, my daughter told me there were some girls at her school who were calling some of their typically developing peers “autistic” as an insult. I was floored. And then I remembered being young and stupid and calling kids “retarded,” and I thought about all the parents of children with Down Syndrome who’ve had to listen to that for generations. I remembered kids calling clothes, accessories, cars, whatever they didn’t like “gay,” and I thought of all the parents of LGBTQ kids who’ve had to listen to that. I also grew up in the South and went to school with African-American kids; I’m sure I don’t need to explain what it must have been like for their parents. Kids can be cruel. That’s why I worry.

Kids are also some of the most big-hearted people on the planet, and if we teach them that our differences are what make us interesting and unique, maybe half the bullying and divisiveness we see could be curbed. We all just want to be seen and valued. Name-calling and garnering laughs at the expense of someone because of who they ARE is never, ever OK. I don’t care who you are, what position you hold, or how much money or power you wield.

One of the biggest gifts I’ve ever been given is my son – my son who has autism. That little factor about him has made me aware of other people’s little factors. It’s made me sensitive to the use of certain words and expressions that a lot of people don’t think twice about using. It’s made me aware that even though he’s “different,” he’s really just like everyone else.

His last words to me this morning were, “I’m excited to go to high school!” And then, with a big smile on his beautiful face, he climbed up on that little yellow school bus and was on his way.

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