As many of you already know, April is Autism Awareness month. What some of you may not know is that I have a daughter on the spectrum. That’s not what makes her special though. The best part about my daughter is that she’s my co-author.
This past March, I was in Washington State presenting at Cavalcade of authors. If you haven’t heard of this event, then you totally need to go here and learn more. I was joined by an amazing bunch of other children’s authors, as well as teachers, and students. Oh the students! Over 900 of them! From 32 different schools.
Although Cavalcade took place on a Friday, I flew out early for an additional school visit at a local middle school the day before. At this middle school, I met with 150 enthusiastic sixth graders, who also informed me that my books had been part of the Scholastic book fair at their school (eep!!).
Part of my workshop at Cavalcade included a power point presentation. As I prepared the slides for this workshop, I had a strong impression that I needed to prepare a separate presentation for the middle school visit. Unfortunately, time ran short and I never had the opportunity to finish a second power point.
As the school visit drew near, that impression gnawed at my innards. I packed my bags and threw in a visual that I wanted to use, should I somehow magically discover the additional hours needed to create that second presentation.
The day of the school visit arrived and that gnawing in my gut was now a full blown battle. There wasn’t time, so why was I still being told to prepare additional material?
As my Cavalcade host drove me to the middle school, I still wasn’t sure what I was going to do, but I knew I couldn’t ignore that inner voice. It was much too strong.
My nerves sprang up as soon as the children filed into the library and all thought of what I should do or would do flew out of my mind.
As I was introduced by the school librarian, I felt the object in my pocket I’d stuffed there moments before I dashed out of my hotel room. When her introduction ended, I stood in front of those hundreds of pairs of eager eyes.Without another thought – and without a fully prepared presentation – I had no doubt of what I needed to do. So I pulled that object out of my pocket.
I held up a long, black key. I asked the students if they knew what it was. They nodded and said it was a skeleton key. Some of the students recognized the key and its use in Cinderskella and eagerly raised their hands to share this additional knowledge.
I asked them if they knew what made it special. While they gave me various answers (it can open a door, it can open a treasure chest, it can take you to the Underworld), they didn’t realize the full extent and beauty of this singular object. For you see, a skeleton key can unlock anything.
I then asked them if they knew who the other author mentioned on the cover of my books were. They didn’t know, so I told them about my daughter. I told them how she’s really special. How she is on the autism spectrum.
Then I asked them if they knew what autism was.
A boy in the second row raised his hand.
“Yes?” I asked. “Do you know what autism is?”
The boy smiled. “I do.” He nodded. “Because I have autism.”
At that moment, I had everything I could do to hold back my tears. I didn’t want to cry in front of the students. It might have sent the wrong message. Plus, I’m an ugly crier. So I struggled to hold back those tears and choked out my next words.
“Each of you has a skeleton key inside of you. You can unlock any door. Your future is only limited by your willingness to try that key.” I paused and smiled at the boy who so bravely and proudly declared his learning difference to a room filled with his peers, “Don’t ever let anyone. ANYONE. Tell you that you can’t.” I held up the key one last time for the students to see. “You have a skeleton key inside of you and don’t ever let anyone tell you otherwise.”
The boy smiled. He smiled so huge I thought for sure it would fill the room and spill out into the hallway. I think my smile could have done the same.
150 sixth graders were absolutely silent in that moment. And that gnawing in my gut, for the first time in weeks, went away.