I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard it said that people are more afraid of speaking in public than anything else, even death itself. Studies show glossophobia, public speaking, ranks among the top 10 fears among people year after year.
While I’ve spent a fair number of my days rattling on before anyone who will listen, I do understand the fears associated with sharing my thoughts in a public forum. I was once a shy, awkward freshman preparing for my first FFA public speaking contest. I could barely breathe and my voice was shaky, but I won that contest and gained a bit of confidence. I was still working on steady breathing at the same type of contest my senior year, but with the encouragement of those around me, I won that contest as well. Twenty some years later, I still work to steady my breathing before presenting, but my contest days are done. Today, I speak for something more precious that medals and trophies. Today, I speak for my son and those like him. I speak for awareness, acceptance and celebration of those living on the autism spectrum. I speak for understanding and I speak to encourage those who are in the trenches with us.
Last week, I had the opportunity to share a bit of our story with a wonderful group of middle school students which make up the Abingdon-Avon Interact Club and Student Council. These two clubs have joined forces to lead their peers in a collection of pocket change to help Illinois autism families through the Autism Society’s Change for Autism campaign.
In the beginning, I asked how many of them knew anyone with autism. Every single hand went up. Then, I asked them how many knew someone other than our Ben. Again, every single hand went up. I knew this was the case as autism has become so common in recent years. In fact, 1 in 68 children are now being diagnosed with some form of the disorder, 1 in 42 boys.
Shortly after our noon meeting, I got a call from their sponsor asking me to return the next day as they were planning an assembly to get the word out about their collection. The kick-off coincided nicely with what I knew was a good time of day for Ben and because Mrs. M&M was looking for a face to connect with and personalize their cause, I made arrangements for our boy to join me.
I wasn’t sure how this would work because sensory overload can be paralyzing and let’s face it, bringing nearly 200 6th, 7th, and 8th graders into a gym at the end of the day on a Friday can create a bit of chaos. There was a moment in which I saw panic begin to consume my boy. He was beginning to fret, I could see it in his eyes as he looked at me and said, “Noooooo, no no no.” and covered his ears, bowed his head and buried himself into me trying to hide. I’m still not sure what set it off, but there we were, in the midst of kids coming into the gym and getting settled, at the onset of what could have become a high-speed come-apart.
I got on his level, put my arms around him and asked if he needed a squeeze (a bear hug – the pressure often helps to “reset” his proprioceptive system and he’s back on track).
“Yes!” And so I hugged my boy. I felt his muscles release and the tension leave his body. What a blessing, I had my boy back just in time to head to the microphone as Mrs. McKinley-Miller introduced us.
She asked me to share just a bit to encourage the kids to participate in the collection, but I left that to Ben. I told the kids that all the change they collect would stay right here in Illinois and be used to help families like ours through The Autism Society’s programs which help to educate and advocate, both in schools and throughout our communities, providing education and training to police departments, first responders, and various other organizations.
My boy stood by, holding my hand the entire time. He looked up and smiled at me, so I handed him the microphone. And in that moment, at the age of 6, our son stood before nearly 200 middle schoolers and said, “Hi, I’m Benton. I have autism. Bring me my money please.”
It wasn’t quite what I had in mind, but it did the trick. The audience was phenomenal. For those few seconds, they were completely quiet. They listened. They laughed and they cheered for our boy. And then they started emptying their pockets to drop whatever change they had into a milk jug which will remain in the school office for the next two weeks.
It’s hard to say how much money will be collected, but I’m already counting it as a success. Our son made his public speaking debut. He rocked it. They loved it and they love him.
(Image is of Ben on Christmas morning 2012, playing with a new toy microphone.)
“Love is what we were born with. Fear is what we learn here.” (www.selfhelpcollective.com)