Monday, April 1, 2013

Autism Awareness - Gift of Friendship

Marc and Ashton - hanging out and being silly a few weeks ago! :)
This is probably one of my favorite pictures of these two ..... such personalities and happiness! :) 

So this post will either make Marc laugh, or cry ... or possibly both. But, it will show what the gift of friendship can do for a child with Autism, and their family as well as the other individual involved in the friendship.

We met Marc and his family last year .... in June at the CHKD 8K Run/Walk for Kids.  Marc now knows how apprehensive I was when I first found out a "kid" was pushing my kid in a running race. Ashton (at the time) was not the easiest kid in the world to engage in conversation with, or approach in any social manner. Kids with Autism oftentimes seem like they don't really care about others, nor do they show much interest in others, at least, not outwardly. Having an adult push Ashton in a race is not a big deal. An adult (well, most of them) can handle dealing with a child who may not communicate much (if at all), and are not off-put when a child displays behaviors that are atypical or deemed "weird". Ashton flaps his hands (both when he's happy and when he's upset), and he makes "noises" as well and very oftentimes wouldn't be social with those he doesn't know.

However, something clicked with these two at that first race. This was Marc's first race with Team Hoyt VB and other than one race since, he's pushed Ashton in all subsequent races that he's done with Team Hoyt VB. These two have now completed one 8K,  three 5Ks,  one 10K, a run swim run 5K, two half-marathons, one 10-miler, and one 1/2mi fun run together. Many of these races, Marc has given Ashton the ride of a lifetime and the two have managed to come in as the first Team Hoyt pair across the finish line multiple times. Not to mention the two school visits Marc made, us visiting one of his XC invitationals, and various other visits we've made.

To say that Marc has changed Ashton's life (and our lives, Ashton's family, too) is an understatement. I've seen Ashton go from a quiet, "in his own little world" kid, to one who seeks out others and tries his very hardest to be social. Ashton seeks out and asks for Marc, when there's been a while that the two have seen each other. Ashton has shown recently that he can get VERY excited when Marc makes an unexpected visit to our house. (Ashton was flapping and clapping in excitement so much that his hand caught the lamp and it fell over LOL!). I've NEVER seen Ashton get so excited over someone coming over, truly. The gift of friendship that Marc and his family have given us is something that none of us will forget. I will never forget the look on Ashton when Marc has surprised him on various occasions. I will also never forget the look on Marc's face when he sees Ashton's excitement over a race, a new experience, etc. Marc's parents, Andrea & Ernie, have done an incredible job raising a young man who is so self-giving to others, even if those others can't always say thank you or reciprocate. David, Marc's brother, got a double-dose of Autism Awareness when he ran with Ashton and Marc on their most recent 1/2 marathon, the Shamrock half. He got to see what Marc has learned over the last few months, Ashton can struggle to communicate, with less than ideal circumstances. But, over these last few months, Marc has also learned to interpret Ashton's non-verbal signs of communication and was able to easily pick up on Ashton's distress. 

I know also that Ashton has changed Marc's life and changed Marc himself. I've gotten the pleasure of watching this young man learn how to best approach Ashton, learn how to interact with Ashton, and not only that, he does it willingly and happily. I've never met a young man who is so willing to go out of his way to make another kid so happy. Ashton's smile when he sees Marc is probably one of the most amazing sights I have ever seen. Ashton lights up and gets so excited. Marc willingly comes up to Ashton and gives the requisite high 5s and of course, the hugs! Ashton LOVES hugs! I've seen Marc go from not knowing how to read Ashton's facial expressions and body language, to sometimes understanding Ashton way better than I do, even. Marc has gone from not understanding Autism to thinking about all of the little details that can make an experience go from a good one, to an absolutely amazing and memorable one for Ashton. He's learned that Ashton is very sensitive to loud sounds, and crowded spaces. He knows Ashton is not fond of the sunlight in his face. There are lots of little things that Marc does that makes me realize he's learned much from Ashton, just from watching him and being around him.

So, amid all of this mumble jumble..... Marc has been an amazing person for our family to know. He's let us know that our special guy IS likeable, CAN make friends, WANTS to be friends, and WILL and DOES change people's lives. Ashton has taught Marc to not judge people so much by outwardly appearance, and that just because a kid has a "label", to look beyond that label AT the person inside. Ashton's an awesome kid as is Marc, and I'm so glad the two of them have each other as friends. Ashton proclaimed Marc his favorite runner, shortly after meeting Marc, and soon after, proclaimed Marc his favorite person ever! Marc and Ashton have more of a big brother/little brother relationship now, and we're all a little worried how Ashton is going to take Marc's going off to college this summer. I know, ultimately, having friends move away, etc is a part of life and growing up. But Ashton's very attached to Marc and will ask about Marc frequently when he hasn't seen him in a while. But, the good thing ..... Ashton shows excitement and understanding far more than he used to. We're taking measures to make sure the two of them stay in contact when Marc is away at college. Ashton has  a Facebook page now (he loves it!) and has used Skype (not to talk to Marc but others) and Ashton has started writing more and more.  They will stay in contact in whatever means possible.

Ashton and Marc have changed each other and each other's lives.... for the better. Together, they are an amazing team and have an amazing friendship. They're both better people for having each other in each other's life. Love them both very much! There's a reason I call Marc my third "son". He's one of us and loves Ashton just as we do and understands him like no other. Thank you Marc (and your wonderful and amazing family) for loving Ashton and being there for him! Your friendship over the last year has been an amazing one and one that we will always treasure! Thank you for being Autism Aware and showing you care!