An autistic child finds his first true comrade in a very unlikely setting.
- Posted on Feb 8, 2012
The school bus stopped at the corner to drop off my 11-year-old son. I watched from our front window, praying he’d had one of his good days.
But even before the bus doors hissed open, I heard Justin screaming. Oh, Lord, what’s happened now? I thought, flinging open our door.
He ran toward the house hunched over, his head down so I couldn’t see his face–only the hair on top of his head. He was shaking his arms and swinging his lunchbox like a club.
In a lot of ways, Justin was a typical fourth grader. He went to a public school. He liked music and swimming, played Little League baseball, excelled at board games and loved animals.
But he also had autism, a brain development disorder that could sometimes make him hard to be around.
Justin barged past me, ripped off his backpack and threw himself on the living room floor, screaming, kicking his feet and pounding the couch with his fists. “What happened?” I asked.
“A boy hit me,” he yelled. “He hit me and hit me and wouldn’t stop!”
Justin had difficulty interacting with others because of his autism, and he and his classmates had not been getting along. They only saw Justin’s differences.
He was taller and bigger than them. He didn’t look anyone in the eye. He had trouble controlling his emotions.
If he struck out in baseball, he’d throw a fit. He was easily startled by loud noises. At recess, Justin was either picked on or ignored.
Ever since he’d started at the school three years earlier, I’d been praying for him to find a friend. Just one other child who’d accept him.
But nothing changed. Actually, things with his classmates had gotten worse, and my prayers more desperate.
“Yeah, tornado!” Justin screamed. A phrase he’d picked up from a movie with people running terrified from a funnel cloud. It had become his distress call.
Sometimes I gave him some gum hoping the chewing would distract him. But he was screaming too much.
I spotted his headphones sitting on a table. Soft music helped him relax. But he was so agitated, I wouldn’t be able to get the headphones on him.
“I’m sorry, Justin,” I said. “I know you’re upset. I’ll call your teacher tomorrow.”
I called Justin’s teachers just about every day. I’d practically worn ruts in the pavement driving to and from school responding to one crisis or another.
I would’ve parked myself in his classroom, but I knew he needed to learn to do things on his own. Still, I couldn’t help worrying. What more could I do?
My whole life centered on Justin. My husband, Jamie, worked long hours to support our family and pay for Justin’s therapy and treatment.
I doled out his medications, monitored his behavior and took him to appointments. But it kept getting harder as he got older.
The worst thing about his autism was how it isolated him. A friend wasn’t just what I wanted for Justin. It was what he needed.
Lord, please, I prayed, let there be someone else who understands my boy.
Justin grabbed a blanket off the couch and wrapped himself in it. Sometimes, that gentle pressure against his body soothed him, made him feel more secure.
I ran and fetched his weighted vest. I held it open for him and he jabbed his fists through the armholes, but he kept yelling, a torrent of frustration that would not subside.
The harder he screamed the more my heart broke. Think! Think! I told myself. You’ve got to do something, fast! “Justin, how about we go to the zoo?”
The Columbus Zoo is just 15 minutes from our house, and since Justin was born we’ve had a family membership.
He couldn’t get enough of the animals. We brought puppets, squeaky toys and squishy balls to attract their attention.
Just seeing the joy on his face as we wandered along the zoo paths, looking at the zebras and giraffes, or visiting the gorilla habitat–his favorite–made me forget Justin’s differences, and how much I worried about him.
“Zoooo?” Justin’s kicking slowed as we got in the car, but it didn’t stop. I pulled my Buick into the visitors’ lot.
Justin screamed and flailed all the way to the entrance gate. People gawked, wondering what was going on. The ticket checker recognized us, and gave me a sympathetic look.
“Justin, look where we are,” I said, “your favorite place!”
We circled the alligator pond. “Do you think the alligators will be in or out of the water today?” I asked. Justin didn’t answer. He was still upset.
We entered the African Forest Region. Heavy green foliage shaded the wood plank walkway; the colobus monkeys screeched. Please calm my son down, Lord, I begged. Give him peace.
Finally, the octagon-shaped gorilla habitat came into view. People lined up against the glass, clamoring for the gorillas’ attention.
On good days, Justin would act like a zoo tour guide, reciting facts about the apes to other visitors.
Sometimes he put on a show for the gorillas, blowing bubbles and trying to catch them
on his fingers, while the animals watched, fascinated.
Or he’d sit on the floor, prop up a notebook on the ledge at the base of the viewing glass and draw pictures of flowers, faces, tornados, clouds, a sun and trees.
He’d press them against the glass to show the big silverback, Mumbah.
Oh, no. I’d forgotten the bubbles, the notebook, the crayons, the squeaky toys, all the things that got the animals to focus on Justin.
He already felt rejected by the kids at school. He wouldn’t be able to handle being ignored by the gorillas too. Should we just leave now?
Justin stepped forward and leaned close to the glass, staring at Mumbah, who was lying down on the other side. I held my breath.
Then, Justin spoke. “This boy at school hit me, Mumbah,” he said. “He kicked me. I wish you had been there to protect me.”
The big silverback raised his hairy head, turned toward us and lumbered over to Justin. Mumbah sat down on the other side of the glass and trained his dark amber eyes on Justin’s bright blue ones.
Justin’s expression softened. He relaxed his shoulders. He fell silent, like a storm passing over the horizon.
There was no way the big ape could understand what my son said. Could he even hear Justin through the thick glass?
But Mumbah ignored the camera flashes, the other kids tapping on the glass. He just gazed for several minutes deep into Justin’s eyes. And Justin, who had so much trouble looking people in the eye, gazed right back, calmly, peacefully.
Somehow, across the barrier of species, of a gorilla confined in a closed habitat and a boy trapped in his own prison of autism, Justin and Mumbah connected.
It was a connection only God could have ordained. I stood in grateful awe of it.
We visited Mumbah often after that, and every time Mumbah came over to greet Justin. I mounted a photo of Mumbah on construction paper and had it laminated.
Whenever Justin got upset in class or was about to throw a fit at one of his baseball games, he looked at it and calmed down.
I even made up a board game with pictures of Mumbah and another of the zoo’s gorillas. Justin loved playing it. The game really helped him improve his behavior.
Mumbah became a symbol of peace and serenity for Justin–that’s how his therapists explained it.
To me, it goes deeper. I think Justin finally found someone who understands and accepts him for who he is. His first friend, and an answer to my most heartfelt prayers.
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