Multiracial boy whistling, sitting on brown leather chair wearing a white polo shirt
with the words "stand against restraints, seclusion, and bullying by teachers"
© Kerima Cevik
Mustafa was one of the first customers to order a t-shirt created by autistic activist Lydia Brown, for those of us who were families fighting against the maltreatment of autistic children in school placements of all kinds. By this time Emily Holcomb was safe and Chris Baker's petition letter was being passed through all internet social networking channels. No one knew that Cheryl McCollins would come down like the wrath of the Lord on the JRC in court and request the court release the video of the hours of torture her son Andre suffered at the hands of staff to the media. Everyone got their new t-shirts and was happy. The problem was, once the shirt was on him, Mu would not take it off. As happens with some children, he liked the shirt and wanted that shirt on every day. Of course, it began to fade from frequent washing. And there was no guarantee that he would like a new identical t-shirt as much. More importantly, he needed to dress more formally for some of the places we were going and that t-shirt was too casual. I posed the problem to Lydia and asked if they could do me a favor that might make both Mu and me happy. The result is the white polo shirt in the photo above. Even though the writing beautifully stitched on the right breast area makes special needs service professionals wince, they regularly compliment him on the how great the white shirt looks against his dark tan complexion.
The magnitude of what this photograph means to me becomes clear when it is realized that although Mu did not choose to stop whistling while I was taking the photo, he did look right at the camera. He is, by nature, someone who does not look directly at anyone, so when he does it means you have been given a gift. This is also the first photo in which he is beginning to look like the man he will become. And that small sign of a different operating system, his autistic eyes, look for a brief instant directly into mine. If you have spent any time around autistic adults and they graced you with those eyes you will recognize the eyes of your children and catch your breath. The feeling is one of finding a long lost cousin of your child at a family reunion. You see the eyes, even in complete strangers, and you don't have to ask. Even when they don't say "I am autistic", you know.
It came to me recently that one of the many reasons I care so much for all of these activists, and all those autistic children and adults they fight for, is because they have, regardless of color, my son's eyes. When they are able to look directly at me for an instant, it is a gift and a surprise, and at that instant, I remember my son and how much we love him. I "see" my autistic son is growing up.