What’s better than one CJ? Two CJs!! Even better is when one of them is a computer image and can be controlled and even turned off when he becomes too irritating.
Ever wish you could just use a remote to turn your kid down, pause them or even turn them off? Well, now we can with CJ or Martin. Sadly, it is only the computer version.
TeachLivE has been working with avatars trying to cover as diverse a population as possible. They make them look different, act different and respond different. The idea is to give prospective teachers as broad an experience as they can. Because they haven’t tortured these poor future teachers enough they decided to throw a little autism their way. Nothing like some special needs to spice up a classroom.
More and more special needs students are being mainstreamed or included in regular
classrooms. Teachers are expected to work with students who have a range of special needs requiring a range of accommodations. TeachLivE now can include Martin in the classroom with the other students. Martin can act as neurotypical as they decide or he can exhibit behaviors common with autism. He can hit himself. He is the first avatar able to get up out of his seat and walk to the back of the room. He can jump up and down and flap his hands, behaviors that look so much like CJ, it sends chills up my spine. His smile is dead on. He wears khaki shorts and a green t-shirt. His shoes even have the elastic laces that changed our lives. http://autismmovesout.org/autism-tying-shoes-tangled-up-in-knots/
The first time I saw Martin and the behaviors he could exhibit, I cried. This really is something that can change lives.
2nd Annual TeachLivE Conference
The 2nd Annual TeachLivE conference was coming up. I was invited. It was after school got out. My husband was off, so we all went. They want to know if CJ will introduce Martin. Well….maybe….we can try.
We decide that I will go up with him and he can at least just stand there.
CJ Meets Martin
I’m getting ready that morning and I get a text. How would I feel about talking? Talking? Normally, I love to talk. When? Today. Today? How long? 2 minutes. A room full of PhD’s and I am supposed to talk about our experience with TeachLivE. OK. I can do that. I have an hour to prepare after all.
Apparently, there has been an issue of ethics brought up.
When you are doing research that involves people, especially people with special needs, there is a concern that they are not being exploited. Oh. This whole time I thought we were using them. I didn’t realize anyone would have an issue with us benefiting to this degree for nothing. I think it through. I guess people would be being “exploited”. dictionary.com defines “Exploited as “to use selfishly for one’s own ends” and “to advance or further through exploitation; promote:”. I could only think that we were “exploiting” them WAY more than they were “exploiting” us.
At the conference, they explain who CJ is and the avatar. I go up and CJ stays in the back holding up the wall. He is “fine”.
I start talking about our experience. I talk about how I have seen my child change. I tell the story of him asking Maria on a date. I tell about him asking all the girls at school on dates. I tell about having TeachLivE in our house. I tell about how he was having conversations. He was the one initiating them. I tell about how he wants to go to UCF at least once a week. I tell how UCF “needs” him. I tell about how people have come up to me over and over asking what is going on with him. Why has he changed so much? What are we doing? Other special needs parents want to know what it is and how they can get it.
I talk about the ethical issue that I was recently made aware of. I explain how I was so confused. I explain that there is no way to explain to anyone how desperate parents are. There is no way to explain the lengths that parents will and have gone to to help their kids. What if one more thing, one more service, one more therapy could make that difference? What if something, anything could improve your child’s future? What if one teacher is changed? What if one kid is more accepted? What if one more kid is included? This won’t just change CJ’s world, they could change the world. Dead silence. I’ve gone over. WAY over. 9 minutes 20 seconds according to my daughter’s video. I’ve taken it too far. Me and my big mouth. No one stopped me. The genius educator and engineer are sitting in the front row. Why on earth didn’t they cut me off? People begin to applaud. I think they liked it.
They take the microphone to the back where CJ is still holding up the wall. He answers a few questions and then escapes.
People continued to come up to me afterwards and thank me for sharing. Several told me they wished their administrators could have heard me as it is difficult to explain why they want to use TeachLivE.
Relief! I wasn’t a complete flop!!
CJ with Geniuses Dr. Hynes & Dr. Hughes (Missing Dr. Dieker)
What’s next? I am not sure if we will do more from home or when CJ will get to officially be with the avatars.
They are in the development phase for a younger, kindergarten version of Martin. I have been digging up old photos and videos again. We have been asked to consult again.
A while ago I wrote about how UCF has an amazing program called TeachLivE.It is a computer generated classroom complete with avatar students to help train teachers without putting any human students at risk.This incredible invention took a strange and amazing turn when a group of autistic students went for a visit.http://autismmovesout.org/autism-teachlive-is-for-lovers/CJ was lucky enough to be one of the students.After our incredible experience, I thought that was the end of our story. It wasn’t.TeachLivE was about to come home.At least to MY HOME!
I am contacted by the TeachLivE people.How would I feel about putting TeachLivE in my house?Seriously?Is it possible?How soon can you do it? What do I need to do?How much will this cost? Does my insurance cover it?
Turns out it is free…..but…there are lots of logistics.I mean LOTS!There is paperwork, funding and details of who is doing what, when and where.We are going to part of a study or multiple studies.I still not sure how many people or how many studies are involved even now.They want to get some idea of how TeachLivE can impact people with special needs.What changes can they make?How much can it help?Is it all positive or just too much?OH….The Pressure!!!!
It is about to begin.A wonderful young PhD student comes out to set everything up and show me what to do.OK.Ready for the truck.How big is it?Do we need movers?My house is really not very big.Do you need my TV or are you bringing your own screen?I know computers are much smaller now. No mainframes.No rooms full of equipment, but this is serious stuff.She comes in with a small computer bag.It is a laptop.A laptop?I am impressed and a little disappointed. I was actually worried about where on earth I would put it and keep it safe.
So, we turn it on and the avatars pop up.IN MY HOUSE!It was a surreal experience.I was a little overwhelmed.We have entered a whole new world. I’m sure that Star Trek is somehow involved.Maybe it is Star Wars with holograms.Anyway, it is amazing.It all took my breath away a little.They will be taping everything.I make them promise not to tape me!I realize that as I am talking to the avatars, I start to feel self conscious about my appearance.I’m not wearing much makeup.I haven’t really done my hair.What about my outfit?Talk about suspension of reality.I am actually worrying about what the avatars think about me.I move everything so that they can’t see the pile of stuff I have stashed in the same room thinking no one will see it.I didn’t count on the avatars coming in.I feel the need to shut down the computer before changing or doing anything private.
I tell CJ that the avatars are coming.I’m not sure how to explain it or how much detail to go into.CJ loves the avatars, but how will he feel about them being in his home.Will he like it?Will he respond the same way?Better?Worse? Is he going to think that all his invitations to “come over to his house”, “play basketball” or even go out on a date, have finally been accepted.My palms are sweating.I was on edge.This HAS to go well.What happens if it doesn’t?Will they just stop if he doesn’t cooperate? My performance anxiety greater than almost any I have ever experienced.It’s time.I log on.They are there.I go to get CJ.CJ refuses to go in.He refuses to cooperate.Great.Now that everyone has gone to all this trouble and expense, he is not going to participate.The great battle ensues and ends with him slamming the door in my face, yelling not so nice things at me.He sits down at the computer, puts on the headphones and says, “Hi guys”. He then proceeds to have a conversation with the avatars and enjoys himself.
The TeachLivE folks inform me that he is already research gold.Me…..???Gold?You call THAT gold?You should hang out around here more often when he is refusing to do things.We could all get rich.They actually want to see what he likes, dislikes and how much he is willing to cooperate…or not.I am not to force anything.We work out a system where he can “earn” something.He gets to pick a “treat”, usually involving food if he cooperates. I now stock up on all possible rewards.I NEED this to go well.(after all, isn’t it really about me?)
Continues….Now, with food on the line, he’s motivated. He starts to get more excited on the days he is going to talk to them.He starts deciding ahead of time what he may want to tell them.He starts engaging with each and every avatar before leaving the room.What???He is usually trying to avoid conversations.He is usually trying to engage with as few people as possible.He will usually stick to one or two VERY safe people. Now he is the one engaging with them. He starts to ask questions.He remembers information from prior conversations and follows up with the specific avatar.
He asks “Where are you going next year? Are you going to college?”He asks about the one avatar’s grandmother that they had discussed in a prior conversation.WHAT??!!?? CJ has always had the memory of an elephant, but only to harass you about something you forgot or your worst parenting moment.He has never been one to ask about what is going on with you.He has never been one to ask about your day, your weekend, your plans.His new thing now is to ask everyone he sees, “How was your weekend?”.The best part of this is that it can be any day of the week.It is appropriate so people don’t react negatively and generally answer.It is funny if it happens on the wrong day of the week, like a Friday.He usually gets a slightly strange look, but he almost aways gets an answer.
All the sessions are being recorded, because the researchers can’t even begin to count or study all the things that are happening.There are now 8-10 PhD candidates working with CJ for portions of their dissertations.
I am thrilled. They are thrilled. Best of all, CJ is so happy.I can’t believe all of this and the changes it is making in my son.
More to come….Good thing UCF and TeachLivE have CJ.Not sure they would be able to go forward without him.One thing I know is that we don’t want them to!They might think this is research gold, but for us and, especially for CJ, it’s priceless.
Summertime.After the busy school year, you just dream of sleeping in.Lazy days.Trips to the beach.We have Sea World and Aquatica (Sea World’s Water Park) passes.They have special summer concerts and night time shows.It is really fun to go at night when everyone is leaving.We don’t have a pool, but lots of our friends do.I even dream of just binge watching some TV.
What does it look like for my daughter?Sleepovers until I say no.Party after party.BBQ’s.Camps.Volunteering at church for VBS.She is gone more than she is home.My job is being a taxi service as much as she can talk me into it.Her summer is like the summers you can only imagine. The only way her summer could get any better is if we actually lived at the beach or had a pool.
What does it look like for CJ?No Sea World.He hates crowds and will get so over whelmed that he will melt down and take you down with him.He doesn’t do sleepovers.He certainly doesn’t want to sleep at your house unless he is out of town and has no option.He definitely does NOT want you to sleep at his and absolutely positively NOT in HIS room.We call it “The Forbidden Zone”.
People with autism just don’t have regular “friendships” like my daughter does.They might like each other and even tolerate doing things together, but they do not “spend time together” the same way.A friend recently said that it makes her sad that her son has no friends to spend time with.At graduation this year, all the kids were so excited and so happy CJ had come to see them.They were taking photos with him and signing yearbooks.They stood in front of him and invited each other to come over for open houses and parties that night or that weekend.They are great kids.Not one invited CJ to so much as stop by.Were they horrible people?No.Were they trying to exclude him?No.It just never occurs to anyone to include him with their other friends.I don’t think he notices, but I do.Every time it starts to look “normal” or as normal as we can get, then it doesn’t.
One of the highlights for CJ this summer was volunteering at VBS.I had told them if they could come up with something for him to do, I would volunteer as my daughter was volunteering.No pressure.It was fine with me either way.I made that clear.I got a phone call days before it started with an apology that he hadn’t gotten back to me sooner.Me….not a problem.I had told him no pressure.Then the shock….they had a job for him.Me…???????!!!????What is he going to do?Security.Me……..Security?He will be helping the guy doing security.They will walk around and make sure no kids are escaping, get bandages if needed and just be a presence.No mention of my job.I don’t even care.I’ll do anything.CJ has a job.I do make it very clear that if for any reason it doesn’t work, we can stop at any time.If the security guy just doesn’t want him to do it, let me know.No hard feelings.We go to the volunteer meeting. They hand out shirts and jobs.My name is never called.I ask.I have not been assigned a job.No problem.I’ll show up and pitch in where needed.This way I can take CJ and leave if things go down hill.We are there no more than 15 minutes the first day when both my children ask me to leave.I make sure everyone has my number just in case.The other moms look at me like I’m crazy for sticking around and tell me to run for it!I do.I get my house clean, run errands, meet a friend for breakfast and even get my hair cut.What a gift!CJ loves it.LOVES IT!He tells everyone he talks to that he has a job.A job?He is “working security”.Everyone has the same confused reaction.Security?Yes.At VBS at his church.I got more calls than I can remember in a long time.CJ said he has a job working security at VBS?Me…yes he does.He is still talking about doing it again even if he has to wait until next summer.Did I mention before that I LOVE MY CHURCH!
Probably the biggest highlight of the summer for CJ is CAMP!It is a sleepover camp.The first time he went I was a wreck.Not too much of a wreck to take off for the beach, but still nervous.He is so excited that he keeps asking me insane questions over and over.When does he leave?What cabin is he sleeping in?How would I know?We talk about all the activities.What are his favorite things to do?Swim.Games.Seeing friends.He can’t wait to see “his girl”.Who is “your girl”?He doesn’t know yet.He will have to see who is there.I asked about this.They told me that each time he goes to camp he picks a girl and then stalks her all weekend.She is usually a typical buddy.They always tell her that he is harmless and he doesn’t come within 10 yards of her, so no big concern.Days ahead of time, he wants to pack.OK.Get your bag and bring me some clothes.He brings his duffle bag he uses for camp filled with every pair of underwear in his drawer and a bathing suit.Well….You might just need a few more things.He goes and has a great time!
He does two more camps this summer.Both are day camps.One is Camp Shriver.It is part of Special Olympics.It is FREE!Did you read that right?FREE!They use a local high school where they have use of the gym and pool.He swims every day and loves every second of it.He comes home and tells me about who he saw and who he likes.He also tells me about who he hopes won’t be there or won’t be in his group the next week.Some things are just the same for typical and special needs kids.There are just some people we like more than others.
How do we get here?
You know how you plan your summer and summer vacations?You figure out a budget, pick locations, find rentals or hotels, decide on camps and other activities.If you are my daughter, the biggest obstacles are time and money.If we had the money, she would be at camps one more awesome than the next until it was time for school to start.She would have nothing but parties and fun with friends.
If you have a special needs child, it looks very different.First, you have to find possibilities.What camps are even available?Day camps or sleep over camps?What are the costs?Where do you want to go on vacation?What options are there for rentals?What can your child tolerate?
When considering a camp, first you have to find out if they will take your child.I have been extensively interviewed.Some camps require a face to face visit before accepting your child.The child is the other problemAfter the age of 22, most camps won’t take them.The problem here is that unlike most 22 year olds, they still can’t stay alone.Can your child sleep away from home?Will the camp provide the needed supervision?Will the camp give your child medication?Will your child be kicked out?
How do you get information?Like anything with special needs kids, it is mostly from other parents.People post on Facebook, email, call and even text.There are web sites and suggestions from schools.We are talking desperate here.I saw one post that said “Does anyone know of a sleep away camp that won’t throw my son out?”.She was serious.One mom posted to pray that her son made it through the week this time.I talked to parents who had been thrown out of camps before the summer was half over.I ran into a mom about half way through the summer who has three boys with autism.Yes, you read that right.Three.She was asking, like we all do, what we were doing this summer.The question is not just polite courtesy like it would be with my daughter.It was quiet desperation as she explained they weren’t eligible for one camp and she had heard of one that we were going to and that she HAD to find something else to get through the rest of the summer.
I have been talking to friends all summer whose kids are making them nuts.Their kids are fighting.Their kids are bored.I understand.I really do.I also can give you a list of parents who would kill for those complaints.
What happens now?What does the future hold?As our children turn 22 and “age out” of schools and programs, what happens to them?What happens to our other kids?What happens to our families?Right now, I don’t know.I have hopes and dreams like everyone else.There are more options every year.A summer job would be great.As he gets older, I would love for him to get some job experience.I would love for some different camp type options.When typical kids get older, they often work at the same camps they went to as kids.They have started having some of the special needs kids volunteer at the camp CJ attends overnight.If he could work at a camp for even a few weeks, it would be great.I do know one thing.As the population of people with special needs over the age of 22 increases, the need for something for them to do increases exponentially.CJ for one WANTS a job.After all, he does have experience working security.
What do they call it in the movies? Suspension of reality? Suspension of belief? When you forget that it is not real and you are sucked into a story and you believe if only for a short time that it is real?
We have officially entered an Alternate Reality. CJ is the local expert in his field. He is the one you call if you have a project, if you need to test an app or program, or just need to interview someone. We have had several graduate students come out and interview him. Not me. Him. We have TeachLivE using him for their development and him using them to improve his dating skills. We even have the local genius testing her new app on him.
A few months ago I got an email from a young woman working on a science fair project. She had been working with a PhD at UCF to develop some technology to use with persons with Autism to improve social skills. CJ had come up at TeachLivE and she had heard about him asking the avatar on a date. She wanted to know if it was OK to mention CJ in some upcoming interviews.
Me….sure mention away. It’s all on line. And in my blog. (I am sure she anxiously awaits the next entry.) 😉
I get another email from her asking to talk to me to ask some questions.
I talk to a delightful, poised, very intelligent young woman. She explains that she had met with a Ph.D. at UCF, Darin Hughes. She had worked with him on a game he was developing to improve social skills in persons with Autism. She was interested in getting CJ to try it. She wanted to have local TV video him playing the game for an interview. Absolutely. She does not go to CJ’s school. The school she goes to does have an ESE program and we know several of the students. I almost asked her why she didn’t just use someone at her school, but didn’t want to pass this up. She was obviously interested in his connection to TeachLivE.
So, she explains to me that the game had to be played on a computer. She rewrote the code in Java script so that it can run on iPads and iPhones. Me. ?? You what? Of course you did. That’s what I would do.
I knew she was smart, but seriously. We talk for a few minutes. I ask where she is going to school next year. I’m thinking Harvard, Yale, MIT…possibly UCF to continue her work with the technology. I’m sure Sheldon is there somewhere. Definitely Wolowitz for sure. She could be Penny, after all. (just much, much smarter)
She says….wait for it….she’s going to be at her high school again next year…she’s a …..FRESHMAN!! Me……………………………………………………………………………..
I’m not speechless often. I am this time. Soooo……….You really ARE the local genius.
So…now the UCF geniuses have a high school genius on their side.
So….the Local Genius contacts me a few weeks ago. She is doing the interview out at UCF with a UCF station and she wants CJ to come and see the app and see if he can play it. She wants to video him and possibly talk to him.
So…we troop out there over spring break. We meet a delightful, tiny, very poised genius. CJ always wants me to leave. I warn them and leave him in the room with the genius, her brother, who DOES go to Harvard and the reporters. Elizabeth and I go off in search of Wolowitz and Sheldon. I am SURE they are here. I wish I had taken photos of the labs around us.
Elizabeth and I end up talking to the professor who teaches the STEM class the local genius is doing her research through. I decide that Elizabeth and I are slackers. I also decide that I would have like science WAY more if I had known about all this.
CJ loved the app and learned it right away. The local genius shows it to me. It is brilliant. I can see so many opportunities here. I have said from the first time I saw TeachLivE work with CJ that there has to be someway to make an app. If I could just recode into Java script…..I say as we fade to a dream sequence.
They come out and the reporter asks if CJ or I would be interviewed. I told her CJ probably won’t but she can ask. Would I? Seriously? Try to shut me up. I look down…..well….at least I’m wearing a clean t-shirt today.
I go to answer a couple of questions. They wire me up. They start with a question about TeachLivE and CJ. I stop them right there. I explain that I will start talking, but they will have to edit it as it is not an easy answer. I talk for WAY too long. They ask a few other questions. I have thought about all of this A LOT!
What are the possibilities here? What if there was an affordable app that people anywhere could download to use wherever, whenever they wanted? What if this helped even a little? What if therapists and teachers could use it?
There is no way to explain to people the level of desperation families feel when they get a diagnosis. There is no way to explain the feeling of inadequacy you feel when you keep thinking what if I did one more therapy? What if I did a different therapy? What if I did one thing different and that made the difference? There are stories out there about how a family dropped everything and enlisted leagues of volunteers and armies of therapist and “cured” their child of autism. What if I could have done that? What if you could do that? What would it take? I know people who went as far as having invasive procedures done. People are desperate.
What if an app could help? What if an app could make a difference?
We leave and other than my disappointment in not meeting Sheldon , I am thrilled. I hope to continue with the genius. She’s adorable and brilliant. CJ liked her, too. You can tell, because he couldn’t look at her.
I get an email that the interview aired. I have permission from the genius’ father to post it. I even have permission to use her name. Her name is Sapna….personally, I like the Local Genius, though. By the way….I talk WAY TOO long! (as usual)
When you live with someone who has autism, you spend your days living side by side lives in two parallel universes. In CJ’s universe, I think the sky is green and all the clothes are loose and baggy and chicken nuggets grow on trees. My family is aware of this of this sort of disconnect because we live with it every day. But once a year, the world gets a reminder too.
Last week was Autism Awareness Day. Each year, everyone is supposed to wear blue to show support. Each year, I forget. Some years I don’t even own a blue shirt. I don’t have anything with the “Autism Speaks” puzzle pieces on it either. CJ’s color is green. My color is red. Period. Autism…well, autism gets my support every day of the year already. I have the bumper sticker. I think I have an attitude as well.
It’s baseball season at CJ’s school, and the team and coaches wanted to recognize Autism Awareness Day. Could CJ throw out the first pitch of the game?
Sure. Absolutely. As long as he isn’t actually involved in the game. I made myself clear. There could be no repeat of the once-in-a-lifetime football experience. Meaning NO tight pants! Basically, if it’s not loose enough to hide a baseball in it, CJ won’t be wearing it.
Autism spoke at my house that day.
The day of the game, I dug through my drawers and found a school shirt that just happened to be blue. No puzzle pieces though. I put on my Autism ribbon pin and some sandals and off we went to the game.
When we got there, we found the school selling original design T-shirts. Of course, they say HAWKS, because that’s the school’s mascot. No brainer. But the lettering for the word is made out of puzzle pieces. In all the colors of the rainbow. With an Autism Awareness ribbon behind.
I stood there blinking, because that was some seriously fine design work for just another ball game.
Then CJ walked up to me, sporting the shirt with a big thumbs up and a “gotta love it” grin.
And then he turned around.
Not only is CJ throwing out the ball…he’s on the team! And the whole team is wearing these awesome shirts with their numbers on the back, ready to play the game. And CJ is Number One.
I got to my seat in the bleachers and looked down.
Right smack in the middle of the field. Lake Howell on a puzzle piece!
And the icing on the cake? The cherry on top?
The team had invited the Challenger players out onto the field. They walked out onto the field and their names were called out over the loud speaker. We were already buzzed with excitement just watching this moment in the sun. Then CJ threw out the first pitch, and not a bad throw either.
And then…the team presented me with a check for Challenger.
If I haven’t said it before, or said it lately, I love this school. The level of thoughtful kindness, creativity and support both the staff and the kids have shown to all the special needs kids in their sphere has been overwhelming and has been a gift of real joy for so many people. At this school, we win whether or not the kids win or lose the game. They are learning every day that there is more to life than winning at sports. They are growing hearts and minds for a lifetime.
It’s been a couple of months since I posted. Feels like about three weeks.
CJ had his fifteen minutes of fame and got quite used to his new normal of The Entire World Has Gone Green Just For Me. A month after all the excitement, the “winning” touchdown, the TV cameras, and people wearing green body paint in the bleachers…well…all I can say is, thank goodness Christmas came right up on the backside of it all, because nothing less than Christmas could keep CJ’s enthusiasm for his own life up as high as it’s been.
I love everything about Christmas. Love the decorating. Love the baking. Love the making gifts, the holiday shows, the lights. CJ loves parts of it. It’s overwhelming and overstimulating…but he absolutely demands we produce a Christmas tree and outside lights. It’s mandatory. He also insists on knowing when everyone one else is going to decorate their trees and houses, and waits impatiently for them to get to it. Of course, just as soon as we get everything up and lit, he starts wanting to know when we’re going to take it all down. It’s a fine line, timing it right so he doesn’t build up too much of a head of anxiety on either side.
He also loves giving Christmas gifts to everyone. As he’s never been voluntarily holiday shopping in his life, this means he is actually volunteering and offering step up for anything that needs to be made or done.
The fact that he is actually volunteering me to bake and knit and craft is completely beside his point. He’s one jingle hat short of Santa CJ and I am his elf. And now that his social life and contact list have blown up in the wake of all football excitement, my normal short list of teachers and neighbors turned into 30 containers of Christmas cookies plus extra for the coaches’ office.
I’m gonna need a bigger oven.
Along with the tinsel and lights and cookies came a phone call from my doctor. I’ve had a place on my liver for about a year now that was concerning, and after a new round of internal close-ups (bad lighting, no makeup), while he thought it was benign, he decided it had to come out.
Well. Merry Christmas to me.
At that point, everything became a blur. Anyone who knows me knows that I am Douglas MacArthur, Genghis Khan and Judge Judy, rolled into one organizing, do-not-get-in-my-way-when-I’m-on-a-mission-or-I-will-roll-over-you-with-my-minivan Commander In Chief. Suddenly, December 25 was just a stopping point on the way to mid-January, when I would have to actually set foot inside a hospital for the first surgery of my life.
Just for some perspective, I would rather give CJ a haircut and shave every day for the rest of my life than spend two hours getting hooked up and prepped for…anything.
So while my oven was turning out dozens of cookies, I began making lists. Lots and lots of lists. It gives me the illusion of actually having control. Especially when I laminate the lists and I can see at least one over every major appliance and from any angle where I stand inside the house. With lists, even if I didn’t make it through the surgery, I would still be there, telling everyone where to go and what to do and how to do it.
Meanwhile, Life, with a Capital L, kept on coming.
CJ got a letter, a cap and a signed ball from a Kansas City Chiefs player (that was a jaw dropper, and one of the nicest letters I’ve ever read). Then he was awarded his football letter along with the rest of the team (didn’t see that one coming and another jaw dropper). Then, and I am not making this up in a post operative fantasy, CJ was voted MVP by the entire team. After I picked my jaw up off the floor yet again, I let the coach know I was concerned that a very deserving player on the team had missed out on the honor and I wasn’t quite sure what to do. The coach, a man after my own organized heart, did a recount and realized that the second place player had voted for CJ too. The whole team had decided.
I suppose it’s true that he did play in the only game they won this year. We’ll take it.
CJ now moves the MVP trophy from his bed to his table in the living room to the floor in his bedroom, depending on wherever he is at the moment. He holds it while watching “his” press coverage saved on our DVR. He would sleep with it if he could figure out how.
I took Elizabeth with me to visit my sister in North Carolina. I had seen snow once, but I never got to see it actually fall before. My husband stayed home in Florida with CJ and we actually got to fly instead of road tripping with CJ. I love my son, but it was crazy how unstressed I was. There was a six hour flight delay and three hours sitting in the airport, and I just kept smiling and smiling until nobody wanted the seat next to me.
OH! I forgot to mention that CJ had his first date!! He took his Best Buddy to Steak N Shake. Of course, this means that I had a first date too, as I went along. I discretely sat at another table, far enough away not to cramp his CJ style, but near enough to hear now and then. And take a few photos. Poor CJ.
Mind you, his Buddy is drop dead gorgeous. She won a scholarship pageant, plays basketball and has interviewed with Harvard and Yale. She’s is bilingual, and is even more beautiful in the inside than the outside. She told me later that CJ talked to her that night more than he ever has. She told me that he told her all about how Elizabeth and I spent New Years at the beach.
Beach. Snow. Close enough.
Aim high, CJ. Aim high.
Mercifully, school started back up, which gave me the time I so desperately needed to start really freaking about over my upcoming surgery. Even ignoring my fear and loathing of hospitals and needles of any kind, there was still the fact that someone was going to carve on me, and me and a piece of my liver were going to part company. And somehow, some way, the world was going to have to struggle on without me for at least a week.
This is exactly what OCD freak mode is for.
I typed. I washed. I shopped. I scheduled. I worked up directions for the oven, the washer, how to clean the floors, work the locks on the fridge and pantry, how to clean the bathrooms, use the microwave, use the internet and shop for food. I stocked up on chicken nuggets and pretzels. I emailed teachers. I printed labels. I made an entire notebook, and if it wasn’t in the notebook, it was laminated.
I was in my element…in my glory. I eventually realized what I was doing was what is second nature to me now: making sure that everything in CJ’s life was as close to unchanged and normal as possible. If he knows what to expect and what to do, then he can deal, which means everyone else can deal too. Surgery, smurgery. I was preparing to delegate my role as Supreme Commander of the life of an person with autism, and Eisenhower on D-Day couldn’t have done any better.
And, thankfully, everything turned out fine. All results came back negative, no one starved and the house didn’t burn down. We couldn’t have asked for better, kinder support from friends, family, neighbors and our church. I have had more offers of help than I could ever accept. I have to admit, it’s nice to be needed. But it’s also good to know that my family can step up when they need to.
Turns out, all this is cramping CJ’s style though. He needs me to get back to normal as soon as possible so he can go on a second date.
It’s been way too long since I’ve posted, but one thing I’m slowly learning is that you can’t be living life and documenting it at the same time. Doesn’t stop me from taking pictures everywhere I go though.
The last few weeks have been…well…insane.
I woke up on September 18, a perfectly ordinary morning where the usual insanity I like to call our family routine unfolded just like it does every day. And like every other day, I assumed that our insanity was contained within the walls of our house. Our lives might be nutty, but everyone else out there was at least approaching normal…whatever that was.
CJ was invited, as always, to the high school football team meal that evening. As you know, CJ is a enthusiastic fan and sideline cheerer for his team. He’s basically an honorary member of the team and he never misses a chance to be part of the activities around a game he will never get to really play.
I went to say “Hi!” to the coach. He was nice as always. Very calm. Very sane.
He said that he wanted to talk to me about something.
He told me he wanted to put CJ in a game.
The Cliffs of Insanity
“Are you insane??” I said. Actually, thankfully, I was too stunned to be that rude, but I admit I thought it loudly in my head. So I just stared at him.
He asked what I thought.
“A real game?” I asked. “Like, with people in the stands and cheerleaders and bright lights and a band?”
When he nodded, I stopped staring and I told him I thought it was a bad idea. Really bad. I tried to explain that CJ couldn’t run plays, he couldn’t follow directions. He just…couldn’t. No way. He would ruin the game.
As the nightmare unfolded in my head, the coach explained that he had an idea. He would put him in the game and he could take a knee. If the team handed the ball to CJ and he took a knee, the play would be over.
Now, I am all about including the “special” kids in anyway possible. I have always pushed for CJ to be included where he could be. “Mainstreaming.” “Least restrictive environment”. The big buzz words. As a IEP totin’ warrior mom of a son with autism, I’ve always pounded on the doors to get him into the widest world possible. He loves typical kids. He eats in the cafeteria, goes to the classes he can, and he gets along well with just about everyone.
However…and I have walked a fine line on this…I have never wanted CJ’s needs or behavior to prevent other kids from learning. I have never wanted him to be in a position where he might disrupt a class. And I never in a million years would have considered putting CJ in the middle of a football game where it would negatively affect the other kids or the score.
Apparently, I lack imagination.
Actually, looking back at the last few weeks now, I realize it kind of got beaten out of me over the years. When CJ was born, he was BIG. Nine pounds plus, with huge hands. The doctor joked that we should just put a football in his hands right then, because that clearly was going to be his destiny. His first toy was a stuffed football. While other babies watched Sesame Street, he watched football. He could shoot 8 foot baskets by the time he was 3. He could spiral a football by the time he was 4.
And then CJ was diagnosed, and bit by bit, our dreams fell away. Our world became a one of “can’t” and “won’t.” He couldn’t do this. He would never do that. And again and again, we were right.
So…you move on. We made a new world and a new normal, even if it didn’t look like anyone else’s. Football didn’t go away entirely. Through the Challenger League, CJ was finally able to play. He played with his peers. He had a great time. We had found his place. But that place was on the sidelines for high school football games.
He’s is a great motivator. I love it. He loves it. He is not, however, one of those special needs kids that could be put in a game like those great videos you see on YouTube. No way, no how.
So when the coach asked what I thought, I told him the truth. He was insane.
Insane people never believe they’re insane, so he ignored me and got me walking toward the office where all the necessary paperwork was. Paperwork. We were going to document this insanity with a sports physical and other details that your typical high school football player has.
There would be a practice. There would be a jersey. There would be a helmet. And there would be football pants…tight fitting, snug football pants.
And then suddenly, I knew: if CJ would let the coach stuff his hypersensitive, sensory issues self into all that gear, that would mean CJ wanted this more than just about anything he’s ever wanted in his life. This was the chance of a lifetime, if CJ wanted to take it.
Who was I, with my bag of crushed dreams, to say no?
When the time came, the assistant from his classroom started with the helmet. CJ told me it was too big for his head. I’m not sure if that meant it was heavy, tight or he just plain didn’t like it. I can’t imagine that there is anything comfortable about a football helmet, regardless of your issues. But he had to wear it for practice.
I asked him if he wanted to play. Yes. No hesitation. Yes. He wore the helmet.
Next time, he put on pads. Hated it. They hurt his back, he said. “You want to play?” “Yes.” “Then wear the pads.” He did.
A few days before the game, he put on the pants. That poor coach stuffing 220 lbs of resisting CJ in those pants! THAT I would have paid to see, but I was banned from the locker room.
They gave him a number: 89.
I got a video of him throwing a pass in full gear. That moment was so fabulous, I teared up.
In that moment, I saw CJ looking and acting like the typical kid he would have been before autism came to stay. Someone was handing me back a small piece of my dreams while making CJ’s dreams come true.
It was really going to happen. I started telling people. People wanted to come. People sincerely, really wanted to come. “Come! Come!” I said. It was going to be CJ’s night. I was overwhelmed with how many people wanted to be there. Then someone said that we should let the local paper know. That the school should get credit for this. I realized they were right. Every time a moment like this gets out, it gives the parents of a special needs child a glimpse of possibilities.
So I sent a discreet note to the paper, letting them know of the remarkable thing this school was doing. Maybe nothing would come of it, but I had to try. I got a response immediately. They had already called the coach. They wanted to come out and interview CJ and some of the players!
Interview CJ. Hah! Now the rest of the world was apparently insane too.
The paper came out and took some video. They ran the story the morning of the game. People started calling me to let me know CJ was in the paper, which I found hilarious and touching.
Next thing I know, Fox News wants to come to our house before the game.
To interview CJ.
They are going to be there during the game to film CJ for the night’s news.
Oh, and also, they want to know if I would bring CJ to their studio the morning after the game.
For an interview.
I said yes to all and made an appointment with my doctor for a sanity check.
Fox News came to our house. CJ wouldn’t come out of his room. But he did decide to let the reporter and camera man in. I, and my astonishment, had to stay out. So I stood outside holding my breath. And he did OK! He “yes ma’am”d her and answered a few questions. It was fine. It was perfect.
This was his second TV interview. Apparently, he’s a pro now.
Then they wanted to talk to me. We went outside. I gave them my best “it’s all great…dreams do come true” speech, sincerely meant, but with one ear out for my two suspiciously perfect children inside. Sure enough. Within minutes, there were screams from in the house. I went in to find the kids fighting. It’s no small thing when a 220 lb 18-year old gets mad at his 80 lb sister and we take it very seriously. Great. I separated them and went out to finish the interview, feeling like a fool.
Bright Lights, Big Crazy
Afterwards, I took CJ with me to the school early to get dressed for the game (the pants, oh the pants!). I pulled up behind the Fox News truck, which was surreal.
Then the AD and assistant AD arrive and I see this:
CJ’s favorite bright green and his number. The game hasn’t even started and I’m already crying.
I wandered into the stadium to find NBC, CBS and the Orlando Sentinel there. The reporters were already talking to CJ and the assistant coach, filming him getting his pads and helmet on. Good God, he IS a pro!
I could see our friends starting to arrive. I saw people who hate football. I saw whole families with special needs kids that would normally not be there, sitting together. I saw people from church. In fact, our church sent a whole cheering section. There were people there whose kids go to rival schools.
Then the students showed up. The kids had made signs. Tons of signs, all with green letters with CJ #89. Keep in mind, the school colors are blue and silver. There was no green involved with either team here.
A kid I didn’t know walked by with “CJ” painted on his chest. I could hardly see for the tears.
The Impossible Dream
We were 0-5 at this point in the season and it had rained every game this year. Rain as in cancel the halftime show rain. But not tonight. Tonight, there was a breeze for the first time in months and not even a hint of rain. Nothing was going to ruin this moment.
CJ was supposed to go in after the clock ran out at halftime. The other team knew this. At the end of the second quarter, the clock was running down. The student section started chanting for CJ. The moment was here. They put him in. As he ran onto the field, the students started chanting “We love CJ!” Louder and louder. The football players were all at the sideline cheering. And then announcer said his name.
He went up to the line as the quarterback. When he was handed the ball, CJ skipped almost the whole 5 yards to the goal line while my husband cracked up about his “lightning speed”. My son, who was wearing an uncomfortable uniform and helmet, surrounded by roaring crowds and bright lights, was practically walking on air. My daughter, who was fighting him two hours prior, was standing with tears streaming down her face. Looking around, there wasn’t a dry eye in the stands.
At the end of the game, CJ went back in for the last play. He took a knee on the clock. And we won. We won for the first time this year!
At the end of the game, everyone was singing the alma mater. The players were chanting “Go CJ” over and over. And CJ was whooping it up. Smiling bigger than he ever has. Pumping his helmet in the air. Throwing his arms around the players. The boy who doesn’t like to be touched and hates looking into cameras wouldn’t stop hugging people.
He had his arms around the players and coaches. He smiled at the cameras. I got a photo of him with his sister. And I got a family photo of us all on the field! It might be the only candid family photo ever for us.
And just when I thought there was nothing left that could make the night any more spectacular, the coach called the players over. He told them he was breaking with tradition that night and giving away the game football to CJ. CJ, who was voted the Most Valuable Player.
Fifteen minutes after the game, he was still taking photos. Everyone wanted a photo with him up to and including the entire group of cheerleaders.
Suddenly, CJ was gone and I went looking. I found him in the locker room, desperately trying to get out of the uniform. The pants were the biggest problem. The poor coach had to help one last time.
Last Stop on the Crazy Train
We rolled home, exhausted and exhilarated by the wonderful insanity of that night. I couldn’t even begin to express my gratitude to CJ’s coach and everyone else who came together to give CJ his dream, but I vowed I would do so tomorrow morning, after we’d all slept 12 hours.
Except we had to get up early the next morning for a live interview on Fox Morning News. Halfway there, I realized in the rush, we’d forgotten to give CJ his meds. This is usually a recipe for social disaster, but we were already running late. We had to risk it or not go at all.
CJ brought the game ball with him and did great. Without meds.
Meanwhile, Twitter blew up. The kids were all tweeting #TeamCJ and #CjsStory. For several hours #CjsStory was trending on Twitter nationally. It was a whole new kind of crazy. Photos were being posted everywhere. @ellen and @sportscenter were tweeted. Papers in San Francisco, LA, Chicago and New York ran the story.
I took a nap.
It is quieting down, but it was a wild ride. Ellen hasn’t called. Sports Center hasn’t either. I figure they can probably smell the insanity.
It doesn’t matter. Nothing matters except that CJ played real football. CJ played for every kid who didn’t make the team. CJ played for every special needs kid out there. CJ played for his parents, his sister, his church, his friends. And CJ played for himself.
Picture yourself, a humble, sincere, vaguely panic stricken education student just about to step in front of a class room full of middle school students for the very first time. You have the best that a college education can give you and a handful of memories of your own school experiences (which probably doesn’t help) and an evaluator watching in the wings.
Extra strength antiperspirant, anyone?
Now imagine yourself seated in in that same class room, surrounded by young people your own age. They’re laughing and talking and coughing and moving in their seats, tapping toes and rummaging through backpacks while cell phones ring and the air conditioner hums and clatters in the background as the fluorescent lights overhead put out a high pitched buzz. The sound of heels clicks on the floor outside the door as people walk by, chattering. Someone is writing with a squeaky erase marker on the dry board on the wall while the person closest to you slurps from the bottom of their foam cup through a straw. A chair scrapes across the floor as someone stands up and the chains on his jacket jingle when he does. Behind you, someone pulls open a crackly snack bag and the smell of Doritos rises into the air. Every scent and sound is equally strong. Each one demands your attention. Nothing gets filtered out.
Then someone jostles you, squeezing by and calls your name. You look up at their face. It fractures slightly into a thousand pieces, each shifting slightly differently as the mouth and eyes and jaw bone move. The confusion is overwhelming. You can barely process what they’re actually saying, looking at that bizarre spectacle. You look away instantly, anywhere else but at that face, but the painful sensation of that glance stays with you, and you start to rock back and forth to help push the feeling away. It doesn’t help much.
And now, it’s time to be social and learn!
An Educator and an Engineer walk into a bar….
Stop laughing. It could happen.
In fact, at the University of Central Florida, it did.
UCF Engineering Smart Guy: Why not give these brand new teachers a chance to get up in front of some computer generated students first? You know, test it out with software students…control the environment.
UCF Educator Brilliant Person: Uh. If we’re controlling the environment for them, how does that train them to control the classroom themselves? Where’s the random? Where’s the real life?
UCF Engineering Smart Guy (beginning to sweat with excitement): So, it needs to be real! And digital! Really really digitally real!
UCF Educator Brilliant Person: Uh…have you seen “Avatar?”
Speakerphone: “Hello? This is Bill and Melinda Gates. We felt the earth move here in Redmond, WA, and we have a grant for you.”
And thus was born “TeachLivE, at least in my fevered imagination. A research team at UCF has created a virtual classroom peopled by avatars. (An avatar is a computer version of a real person. The viewer sees the computer version on a screen while the real person controls the avatar behind the scene. And no, they’re not blue.)
So now, before throwing a tender young teacher to the wolves who are our darling middle school offspring, the teacher can enter a sort of educational flight simulator full of desks and digital students, just as if standing at the head of a classroom. Every one of those avatar students is “alive” in that a real person’s body motions and speech are being reflected in real time on the screen. Each avatar has a name, personality and a back story. And they react based on the teacher’s actions.
Of course, the avatar isn’t really a student. It’s controlled by a trained interactor, and it’s a highly controlled environment: a student teacher’s lesson plan has to be submitted in advance. This results in intense immersion experiences for the teachers. In fact, it’s so intense, no student teacher is allowed to be in the virtual classroom for more than 10 minutes. I’m not entirely clear on what happens if they go over 10 minutes but it may account for the slight burnt smell I noticed hanging over the lab.
TeachLivE is now being used all over the country to train new and experienced teachers. Go to Youtube. You’ll see.
A Teacher and a Teen with Autism walk into a virtual classroom….
CJ’s teacher has been hard at work on her master’s degree at UCF. This means she’s smart, and she knows people. She and one of the TeachLivE creators (Educators and Engineers again, though I don’t know if it was in a bar) got the idea to bring her special needs class into the virtual classroom…you know…just to see how they would react to the avatars. Some of her kids are more social and attend mainstream classes. Some fall in the middle. And one was completely non-verbal. But no matter where on the line, all her students struggle to engage or show social interest. So we already know how they react to people.
Except that these “people” aren’t really people. And these kids aren’t just any kids. The Engineer and the Educator wondered what would happen.
The result was a show stopper. Each student entered and one by one took a glance at the screen, stopped, focused and LOOKED. Heads up, shoulders back, eyes front, gaze steady. And one by one, the educators in the room came to a halt, spellbound. The room fell silent. Except for the kids…who started talking.
Every single one of the kids engaged unprompted with the avatars. They took turns. They initiated. They asked questions. They waited for answers. And then they answered back. It may not have been linear conversation as you and I know it, but it was a sustained back and forth that made rough sense, and most of all, the kids were interested in the interaction.
The non-verbal student typed on his iPad that he wanted to talk to one of the avatars, and he asked for the specific avatar by name. He had only seen that name on a seating chart on the screen because no one had spoken to that avatar yet, but he was interested enough to pick him out and ask for him. And CJ made sustained eye contact and engaged in continued conversation with the avatars for over 8 minutes. EIGHT MINUTES. Fifteen years of therapy had gotten us to a bearable sixty seconds. Ten minutes in this virtual world and we were light years away from anywhere we’d ever been before.
He didn’t want to leave. Nobody did. But they had suddenly found themselves in the middle of a completely unanticipated new experiment, and then someone managed to remember the 10 minute rule. By the time the kids were escorted out, everyone who worked in the lab was elated and in tears. And dumbfounded.
No one expected this.
A moment of sustained eye contact may not seem remarkable to most, but to the parent of a child with autism, it’s one of several Holy Grails. Having a conversation of more than two or three sentences that isn’t essentially forced upon your child out of necessity is something many of us gave up hoping for or expecting a decade ago. And your child suddenly finding the human race anything more than a mine field to be picked through….
Needless to say, it’s been a game changer.
First of all…why? Why is it different for these kids interacting with digital people instead of flesh and blood? What is there about the avatars that eases the fractured process of looking people in the eye? Are there subtle social cues or facial movements that are missing from the avatars that make it easier for a person with autism to process their visual information?
Now….what to do with it? There are a thousand questions now that weren’t there before. An entirely new path of research has suddenly opened.
CJ’s teacher is now a Ph.D. candidate at UCF and she works in the lab. The combination of TeachLive and Autism applied is now the focus of her dissertation. She is using CJ as a subject. He has been in the lab 3 times now, and he’s even talked to the avatars over the internet using FaceTime. He loves these sessions. He loves the avatars. He does not want to leave. He gets jealous when he realizes someone else is talking to them and he is not in there.
CJ talks with Maria in the TeachLivE lab
He is developing relationships with the avatars that are sustained from session to session. He even has a favorite. Maria. Ah, Maria. Maria is quiet. She is very smart, but she doesn’t offer answers. She never volunteers for anything. Interestingly, most student teachers never speak to Maria when they run the classroom. She’s the typical quiet student that would get overlooked in a busy classroom. CJ specifically asks to speak to her.
In his last session, he offered Maria information, he asked her questions, and talked about previous conversations.
And then he asked her out on a date.
Why is this happening? We have no idea yet. Personally, I can only think that it is safer. It has always been obvious that there is so much more going on in his head than he can get out. For some reason, when he’s with the avatars, he feels either safe enough or physically comfortable enough to try out some interactions.
Temple Grandin said that a person with autism finds it actually painful to look at someone’s face. The only thing that I can think is that the clues I get while engaging with someone…clues about their inference and emotions…are just too over whelming for someone with autism. Everything comes at him at once, and he can’t filter out what’s important and what’s not. I sometimes try to just imagine what that does to CJ.
That doesn’t appear to be happening in the TeachLive classroom.
Brave New World
And now…now things seem to be changing outside the lab as well. CJ is having more and more unprompted conversations. Real conversations with people. A couple of people have come up to me recently to tell me about an almost normal conversation that they had with him. These are people who know him and know what the difference is and know something’s different. They want to know what is going on.
I have no idea what to tell them.
After his last trip to TeachLivE, CJ invited a typical student (a girl!) to dinner at our house. Can I say that again?
CJ…invited…a girl…to dinner at our house.
It gets better. He was so insistent that she come that she and her family finally told me about it. I confirmed the invitation. And she came! He was so excited before she arrived, and he even sat at the table and (sort, of) engaged in conversation with her.
The only bad part of this is that now he wants to call her…ALL THE TIME! (I do NOT let him do that! You’re welcome!) Just pointing out that this is a problem I never, ever thought I’d have.
His 11 year old sister had some friends over on the last day of school. CJ called one of the boys over to the door of his room (no one is actually allowed IN his room, so standing in the doorway means it’s serious). He then proceeded to quiz the kid about his intentions toward his sister. HE was the one drawing an stymied 11 year old into conversation.
CJ: So. How’s school going? How’s school?
CJ: So, she’s funny. She’s really funny. My sister? She’s cute?
By this point, I am standing in the hall, texting CJ’s teacher like a mad woman, trying and failing to get video of the moment.
CJ: So. How was your birthday? Did you have a good birthday?
Boy (whose birthday was months ago): Uh…okay…
CJ: So she’s funny? She’s funny? You think she’s funny? My sister, she’s cute?
Wretched Boy: Uh, yeah.
CJ: Ah HAH!
This is a first. As Elizabeth comes and releases her poor friend from this doorway insanity, I am shaking. I have never seen CJ actively engaging with someone else and being the one to draw the other out in conversation! It’s a complete role reversal, and I have no idea what it means.
What IS going on? I have no idea, but it sure looks good to me. Can I prove that TeachLivE has done this? No. I don’t work for UCF. I’m not in any way affiliated with TeachLivE and I’m not an expert on any of this. I’m just a parent with a point of view who happened to be there at Ground Zero for something nobody understands. Not yet. The research is only beginning but my husband and I are convinced.
Blake Bortles and Oviedo Challenger buddy CJ Williams
Any little boy who has thrown a football around the yard dreams of playing in the NFL. Heck, half the middle aged men in America sitting on their sofas working on their love handles during “the game” are still secretly dreaming about it.
The NFL. The pinnacle. The elite. The very top of a very long, very steep, very hard to climb ladder. It’s years of hard work, sweat, endless practices, study, physical exhaustion, pain, self denial and a personal inner drive that almost defies description. It’s the place where the best are separated from the merely very, very good. It’s the end of the line for a lot of dreamers.
Last week was the NFL draft. Last week, hundreds of hopeful college players sat by their phones, waiting for the call. And last week, for a handful of special young men, that dream came true.
One of them is VERY special to us.
Those of you patient enough to have followed my bloggish ramblings over the past year may remember that CJ is an enthusiastic member of Challenger football. Challenger is a football program that lets children with disabilities actually play the sports they love to watch and dream of. Challenger pairs these children with a volunteer “buddy” from a high school varsity team. Right from the start, there were some amazing young high school football players that came out to buddy with the kids.
One was a local Oviedo high school quarterback. He and CJ took to each other right away. Aside from partnering with CJ at the Challenger games, he would come by just to hang out and shoot hoops or to sit in CJ’s room with him and watch old football games. And I do mean old. As in, games from the 1990’s. Games from when before CJ was born.
CJ doesn’t watch the same football as the rest of us, and he doesn’t watch it the same way either. You see, CJ has memorized the old games…play by play. And when a big play comes along, CJ pauses and fast forwards through it…and then turns to tell you what happened. In the more than half a decade CJ’s buddy has been visiting him, I don’t think he’s seen one significant play on our TV. And he’s never once questioned it, redirected CJ, or lost patience with our grainy, flickering well-worn VHS tapes of forgettable football with all the good stuff “edited” out.
This young man has repeatedly been kind to my son…faithfully kind, and so very patient and full of good humor. And over time, as my trust in him grew, my mother’s heart healed a little bit and my faith in the good things in this world was given a boost. I was grateful, every time I saw CJ’s excitement when his buddy would visit, and I began to hope hard as I watched a dream unfold.
CJ’s buddy got to play football in college. He was red shirted his first year and did not start for a couple of years. It had to have been frustrating and he must have been discouraged at times. Even with college classes and practice and a steady romantic relationship to tend to, he continued to visit CJ when he could over the holidays. Once, he had three days off between exams and practice for his bowl game. He came and spent more than two hours of that time with CJ…you guessed it…NOT getting to see the big play.
I kept accusing his mother over and over of forcing him to come visit. She kept insisting over and over that she had not.
His jersey number in high school was # 9. In spite of his buddy having a perfectly good name, CJ insisted on calling him Number 9 at all times. We got used to it. However, once he was in college, he was no longer a 9. He was now # 5. CJ went out of his way to explain that Number 9 was Number 5. I am sure people thought poor CJ was so confused and did not know his numbers, but he was spot on in his own loyal way.
Blake Bortles and Oviedo Challenger buddy CJ Williams
Four years of college came and went. Things started to change. CJ’s buddy was tapped to play. Bench went to second string to first string. Play he did. And the university team started to win. And win. And win. CJ’s pride and excitement for his buddy was a joy. He knows little about rankings or scouts or drafts. But he knows what a dream feels like.
Meanwhile, I was standing to the side with my mouth open, watching this young man’s star rise beyond wild dreams, holding my breath, watching his family holding their collective breath…so, so proud.
Not too long ago, CJ was watching old highlights from 50 years of FSU football. (Yes, we have old FSU games. We can’t help it.) CJ knows all the players, the plays and everything that has ever happened on the FSU field. That day’s respite worker asked him who his favorite player was. He answered right away that it was # 9. She was trying her best to figure out who #9 was, as there was no #9 on the TV screen.
Well…..#9 IS his favorite player EVER. #9 comes to his house. #9 spends time with him. #9 plays big football, but #9 is HIS friend. #9 is in the big photo framed on CJ’s wall. #9 has nothing to do with FSU and everything to do with CJ. # 9 is #5 now, but he’s still #9.
Last Thursday night, #9 was drafted into the NFL. He got the call. #3 draft pick and the #1 quarterback pick.
Let me say that again: #3 pick in the draft, and #1 quarterback.
Never, ever tell me dreams don’t come true. Sometimes, nice guys do finish first.
The Jacksonville Jaguars and the NFL might think Blake Bortles is #5, but to CJ and me he is and will always be HIS #9.
In between pro days and the combine, Blake made a special trip out to Challenger practice to meet with the kids. We knew he was coming, but were not allowed to tell anyone. NO ONE. The coaches didn’t even know. Blake’s mom printed 200 5×7 photos and Blake signed his name to every one and took photos with the kids for over an hour. He did not leave until the last kid and parent had every photo and autograph they wanted. Keep in mind this is a young man who was just days away from the draft…someone under tremendous pressure from all sides…and this was where he choose to focus his time and attention.
We were not allowed to call the press. We were not allowed to even tell the Little League players he was coming. He came in the back way and went out the back way. This was before the draft and we wanted to help him get some good press going in. Coverage of an event like this could have been PR gold for Blake.
We offered to tell anyone that might help.
We wanted to make sure that people knew what kind of man he was when no one was looking.
That wasn’t why he was there. That was never why he’d been there. He got it, even if it took us a while to catch up.
CJ got it all along. Blake was there for HIM.
Of course, word did get out. Oviedo Little League was contacted last week by the National Little League. They wanted to know how Blake was connected to Challenger. They interviewed the director of Challenger. They wanted photos. An article was in the works. I sent in photos as requested, just as originally taken. The article just came out and CJ is mentioned.
Blake Bortles, Lindsey Duke and Oviedo Challenger buddy CJ Williams
I love that everyone now knows that THAT is how Blake acts when no one is looking. And I love that they know it after the draft, so they can believe it just like we always have.
(PS….his brother does exactly the same thing. His brother, Colby Bortles, plays baseball at Ole Miss. We’ll be seeing him in the MLB draft in a few years. Love, love, love those Bortles boys!)
Blake and his beautiful girlfriend Lindsey have been CJ’s friends, supporters and fans from those first football tosses on the Challenger field when no one could have imagined the paths two entirely different boys would take, or that a dream could be so generously shared.
To # 9 who is #5 but always #9, thank you…and I’m still holding my breath…for both boys.
Back in October, I wrote a post called “Haunted Homecoming.” In it, I was struggling to come to terms with CJ’s peculiar popularity, which has taken him places in the high school hierarchy that most of us could only dream of when we were 18. I watched him hover around the Homecoming King and Queen that night, inside the group but a million miles away at the same time. And it hurt.
Since then, CJ has been hanging out with friends through the Best Buddies program. Best Buddies is an organization that pairs typical students with special needs students. During the year, they eat lunch together and spend time together. Typical kids spend time with the special students and everyone’s horizon grows. It has resulted in some incredible relationships for some families I know.
CJ’s school started a Best Buddies program a while ago. The program creates opportunities for the buddies to do some of the same things every other student does. For example, right now they are having a Walk-a-Thon to raise money and they’ve asked each student to try to raise $50. In less than 2 weeks, CJ has raised over $300. He is the highest on his team so far.
Tonight…was the Best Buddies Prom.
I thought it was just for his school. At first, I was just confused. I know what “Prom” looks like. I had no idea what “CJ’s Prom” was supposed to look like.
I knew he would never wear a shirt and tie. So, I ordered a green novelty t-shirt online with a tux jacket and tie printed on the front of it. He always wears green shirts anyway, and this way he would be in a “tux”. I knew the kids at school would love it. I celebrated my cleverness online with friends.
Then I found out that the event won’t be at his school. Instead it’s at the local Shrine Temple. Okay….
Also, it’s not just going to be his school It’s going to be kids from all over our area. Ah. It’s one of THOSE events. I have seen photos of other people’s kids at these functions. They all wear shirts and ties and even jackets. NOW WHAT?
Even my husband said that he could not wear the t-shirt, and that’s saying something. So off to the store with CJ. Joy. Shopping with CJ is like shopping with any boy who hates to shop, but really really magnified. I make him try on A shirt. One. Fortunately, I found a green one. I then find a tie that matches. I would have then celebrated my cleverness online with friends, except it is going to take an Act of God to make him wear this getup.
It seemed premature.
Last night was The Night. We started getting ready hours early. I got him to take a shower. I shaved him. Remember about trying not to cut a moving object? I rock. No blood drawn tonight! It takes 20 minutes to get him in his pants, belt, socks, shoes, and shirt. I even got the shirt tucked in. I made my husband tie the tie on himself before he went to work, as I haven’t tied a tie since it really mattered, which I think would have been my wedding, and maybe not even then. I didn’t even try to get the tie on CJ. It went in my purse for the future battle in the parking lot at the Shrine Temple.
It is not hot here in Florida right now, but by then, I was sweating like I had been working out, which in a way, I was. To escalate the entire traumatic process, I insisted on taking photos at each step. I decided that it would be funny to have a step-by-step of the torture I was inflicting on him.
I think I really do have an evil streak. Like any good parent.
The whole way there he asks me which way we are going. Do we turn here? Which direction now? I keep taking deep breaths. He wants to know what time I am picking him up. He wants to make sure they know how to reach me. Will I be waiting in the parking lot? I assure him that I know how to get there and continue to give him the next turn over and over. I explain that of course, they will want my number. I promise to be there right at 9 PM.
It was CJ’s brand of nervous, but I realized he was nervous about Prom. Like any high school kid.
We get there and have the “you HAVE to wear the tie” fight in the parking lot. I finally get it on him. We compromise by leaving the top shirt button unbuttoned. I just leave the tie a little loose. And Lo! and Behold! He looks good! I mean really good. Almost normal good. And that’s really good! I am so relieved. As we walk in, all the men are wearing ties and several are wearing jackets. Everyone looks fabulous. The girls are all done up with dresses, hair and make up. This is a real prom. We see several friends of his from other schools that he knows from baseball. We even see his favorite friend. I am relieved. CJ is relieved. In fact, I can’t even find him now. I’m the mom with the camera and I wanted a picture of him with his friend. Oh well, maybe when I pick him up.
We get to the front table and they have him sign in. There are blanks for name, school, etc. He walks up and signs a huge “CJ” in the middle of the page. They look a little taken aback. Secretly, I like his approach, but I walk up and shrug and sign him in correctly. But wait a second. There is no place for contact information. ???? Beg Pardon? I was then told that this was Prom. No parents allowed. There was a “lounge” over there for parents to wait in. Wait for 3 hours? No thank you. I made dinner plans.
Just before I left, I tell them that he is very concerned that they know how to reach me. Doesn’t he know my number? Ah, no. No, he does not. They direct me to the woman in charge who takes my information. I get temporary “mom with camera” permission to go into the room and take some pictures. Inside, I am greeted by a beautiful young lady who is taking photos with CJ. She informs me that she is the buddy from his school. My internal jaw drops. She says that she loves him and is always trying to get him to look at her, but he won’t. I explain that he literally can’t look at pretty girls. The prettier they are, the worse it is. She is happy to take my number and promises to call if he has any problems. I think I may have influenced her.
At 6:15, I happily go off to dinner, feeling things are far better than they could have been and sure that CJ will have a good time.
At 8:15, as I am leaving dinner, my phone rings. It is a buddy from his school. CJ is ready to leave. Seriously? Wait! I have 45 more minutes. I beat down my internal timekeeper with a sigh and tell them I am on my way. I am really disappointed. If he’s calling me to pick him up 45 minutes early, he must have had a tough time.
I walk in expecting to see him miserable. Instead I see him dancing with a gorgeous blonde girl in a pink dress. I walk up and he introduces me (he has to ask her name first). She does not go to his school, but was having a great time dancing with him. I thank her, blinking a bit at her pink blonde gorgeousness. And then CJ’s buddy from his school comes running up to me. She is practically bursting with excitement, exclaiming that she took photos for me. I…thank you. I ask her to send them. She keeps talking…a lot…something about the crown and the queen and the photos she took. Now I am confused. She is going to send me lots of photos of two kids I don’t know and haven’t met? Then she looks at CJ, and back at me and says “He is the King!”
Wait. What? WHAT???? How many Kings are there? Is there one per school? One for the special needs kids and one for the typical?
No. There is one King. ONE KING.
CJ IS THE PROM KING!!!!!
Now, I am shaking. I am confused. How did this work? How did they pick him? Who picked him? She had no idea. She said that he was having such a good time that they must have just wanted him to be king.
I have no idea who “they” are, and at this point, I don’t care.
I am trying to not cry as he leaves me standing there. He is the King. He is done. It’s time to hit the road. He tries to leave immediately while I am still standing there in shock, but they have stationed a guard at the door. This poor guy’s job is to block the kids trying to leave without their parents. CJ, however, got right by him. And then we have the guard running toward the exit door, trying to stop The King from leaving the building. CJ was bigger then this guy. He kept telling the guy that I was coming. Of course, the guy didn’t know if that meant “right behind me” or “an hour from now.” Finally the poor guy saw me in the hallway and was so relieved.
I am just trying to get out of there without breaking down.
We got to the car and CJ wanted to know what was wrong. Was I mad at him? What did he do? Who upset me? I was shaking and still trying to not cry. I called my mom to tell her. I couldn’t even get the words out. I started crying and had to wait to calm down enough to talk to her.
I posted on Facebook. I called everyone. And this morning, I still can’t process it all.
All he has talked since is how much fun he had. For someone going to a dance, who hates evening events and crowds, he had a pretty awesome time.
Last night I was thinking of all the times I had cried because CJ would never be anyone’s dream prom date. I was thinking of all that I always thought would never be. And last night, I realized that sometimes CJ’s reality is better than anything I could ever have hoped for.
As our friend, Steve, would say, “CJ has now surpassed us all”. None of us were ever Prom King or Queen. None of us would have even dreamed of it. CJ wasn’t anyone’s Dream Date when he arrived. But when he left, he was King!!