I would love to see this month honor those on the spectrum rather than focus exclusively on their challenges. All humans have challenges, and all humans have gifts. The autistic population has been portrayed inaccurately and one-dimensionally for too long. While we all need to identify our challenges in order to overcome them, if we fixate on them, we form an inaccurate perception of who we really are. Let’s round out this discussion, so our kids grow up with a healthy perspective of their wholeness, autistic or otherwise.
I wrote this last year, but am sharing again because I think this boy, Jared, is an amazing example of a person who celebrates his wholeness, and uses his gifts to make a positive impact in the world:
Kids for Peace, a global nonprofit and creator of the international Great Kindness Challenge, honors volunteers with autism for Autism Awareness Day (April 2, 2015).
Carlsbad, CA – April 2, 2015
Ten-year-old Jared and his sister Destiny collect donations for food assistance program Got Your Back San Diego.
Ten-year-old Jared from Pacific Rim Elementary in Carlsbad, CA, organized a class food drive for the food assistance program Got Your Back San Diego during The Great Kindness Challenge this year. Common misconceptions about autism, a highly variable spectrum disorder, could lead people to believe that Jared’s autism would prohibit such an achievement. However, Jared’s profound sense of fairness and justice, which experts attribute to some forms of autism, were precisely the traits that motivated him. “There are kids suffering [from hunger] on the weekends when they could be having fun with their friends and family. As a country, we can’t accept this,” says Jared. “We must help!”
Jared’s mother, Bridget Smith states, “New research on autism suggests that autistic people may actually feel emotion more deeply than other people, and knowing Jared, that makes a lot of sense to me. He has a deep sense of justice about social problems like immigration and homelessness, and is always trying to come up with creative ways to solve problems.”
Kids for Peace has inspired more than 2,000,000 children to get in touch with their compassion as a leadership skill, through participation in the 2015 Great Kindness Challenge in January. This free annual week-long school event calls on all students to perform 50 suggested kind acts to contribute to the greater good. For children on the autism spectrum, however, the challenge can empower them to shine as leaders in ways people may not expect.
Children’s author Emma Lesko experiences a strong sense of justice and deep empathy for others with her autism spectrum disorder.
And it’s not just the kids who are benefiting. Emma Lesko, autistic children’s author and volunteer on The Great Kindness Challenge planning team, echoes Smith’s sentiment. “A common belief is that people on the spectrum lack the ability to take another’s perspective or to empathize. That has not been my experience,” she says. “In fact, my empathy is so overwhelming that I often become paralyzed by it. Working on The Great Kindness Challenge has given me the opportunity and tools to transform that paralysis into action.”
Jared experienced a similar empowerment. Not only did he take the lead on inspiring his classmates to donate food to combat hunger in his community, he also learned a little more about social acts of kindness from The Great Kindness Challenge checklist. “Things like saying ‘good morning’ to other kids, or giving a friend a high-five, don’t come easily to Jared,” says his mother. “Sometimes he doesn’t even feel comfortable acknowledging when other kids say ‘hi’ to him or offer him a high-five. Still, he completed pretty much every activity on the kindness checklist.”
Says Lesko, “The autism spectrum is very broad, so we must not generalize autistic abilities. We can say, however, that every child on the spectrum has value. Autistic activist Temple Grandin once said, ‘There must be a lot more focus on what a child can do instead of what he cannot do.’ In my opinion, The Great Kindness Challenge provides a path for many kids on the spectrum to do just that. Obsessive interests can lead to passion, rigidity can lead to perseverance, and intolerance to injustice can lead to changing the world.”
About Kids for Peace and The Great Kindness Challenge
Kids for Peace is a global 501 (c)(3) nonprofit that provides a platform for young people to actively engage in socially conscious leadership, community service, arts, environmental stewardship and global friendship. The Great Kindness Challenge is an initiative that encourages schools to devote one week each school year to performing as many acts of kindness as possible using a checklist of 50 suggestions. The next Great Kindness Challenge takes place on January 25-29, 2016. For more information, to register your school, or to download the checklist visit The Great Kindness Challenge website.
The Great Kindness Challenge is made possible by the generosity of presenting sponsor Dignity Health and supporting sponsors: ExaMobile, The Code Crew, ViaSat, SDG&E, NRG, KIND Snacks, and McGraw-Hill Education.
About Emma Lesko
Emma Lesko is the author of the children’s chapter book series SUPER LEXI (ages 6-9). She is an advocate for diversity and inclusion in children’s literature, and offers writing workshops to lower elementary students. Emma has several years of experience teaching English and Spanish to children of varied developmental abilities in the United States, Brazil and Spain. For more information, visit http://www.EmmaLesko.com
Jill McManigal, Co-Founder and Exec. Director of Kids for Peace