School can be tough for a lot of kids, especially when they don't fit in with everyone else.
We tend to assume that most children have at least a few friends to play with during recess or outside of class, but sadly, some don't even have one. Bob Cornelius from Rockaway, New Jersey, was faced with this reality when he went to his son's back-to-school night.
Eleven-year-old Christopher is on the autism spectrum, so his dad was likely well-aware that he has difficulties with social interaction. But when he saw Christopher's answer on an assignment asking who some of his friends were, he was heartbroken by what his child had written.
"Never have five letters cut so deep, and they weren't even directed at me....It was just an overly simplistic statement that spoke volumes," Bob said.
He decided to address the issue in a heartfelt Facebook post with the goal of influencing others to be kind and accepting of people they see as being different.
"Christopher's brothers have had many, many sleepovers over the years, obviously in front of him, and it has not gone unnoticed. 'Can I have a sleepover?' Christopher has asked. 'Sure, buddy....with whom?' As a response, he would flap his arms and stim instead of answering. He didn't have an answer because he didn't have a name. Because he didn't have a friend. He's never had a 'real' friend. Ever. He just turned 11. And because he's had no friends....there was no one to invite," he said.
"The only solution I can come up with is to share this with you and ask that you have a conversation with your kids. Please tell them that children with special needs understand far more than we give them credit for."
"They notice when others exclude them. They notice when they are teased behind their back (a lot of times 'behind their back' is right in front of them because they think the 'different' child doesn't understand). But mostly they are very much in tune when they are treated differently from everyone else. Trust me when I tell you this hurts them, even if it's not obvious to you and me."
But Bob wasn't at all prepared for the overwhelming response he got. People from all over began sending Christopher letters, gifts, and cards with words of gratitude and support.
People were quick to offer their friendship to Christopher, including others with special needs who understand his struggles.
Bob also received kind messages of support from others who have autistic family members.
What's even better is that things started changing for Christopher at school. Bob said that "at a recent back-to-school night for Christopher's brothers, many parents and teachers took me aside and expressed how the children at his school have been reaching out to him and showering him with love and friendship. Everyone seems to be having this conversation in school, and more importantly, at home."
"The principal shared with me how this post has made such a positive impact on all the students in his school and offered his full support in getting the message out...the message of empathy and inclusion....for all students...not just those with special needs."
This has been an eye-opening experience for the proud father, as the response "made it clear that a lot of children want to write to Christopher, send him drawings, and tell him that he has a friend out there. This is a kind act. This is a selfless act motivated primarily by empathy, I would imagine. And that IS what the message is all about."
Now Christopher has more friends than he could ever ask for thanks to people's willingness to reach out and show him that he isn't alone.