“We will be getting a new student next week, and we would like you to help her around the school,” my fourth grade teacher said.
And I agree happily. Excited about being asked, I imagine a fourth grade friendship. Painting nails. Sharing secrets. Being best friends.
Next week came quickly, and I raced from the bus to my classroom window. Peering through, I noticed something different—her crooked smile, her arched back and her buckled knees. I went inside to introduce myself, but I felt confused.
“Maddie, this is Tiffany.” My teacher noticed my curious discomfort, so she brought me in the hallway. She explained that Tiffany had autism.
Autism? What is that?
She said Tiffany is no different than the rest of my classmates. I agreed, unknowing how I was going to cope, connect, or communicate with her.
The following week, I learned Tiffany’s likes, dislikes, and triggers. My class didn’t understand her differences. But I did. I felt responsible for her. She drove me to do well in school and she helped me understand the way people interact with each other.
After helping Tiffany for over three years, she moved in with a foster family, and transferred schools.
Then, from eighth grade through sophomore year, I babysat Matthew. He is a boy with Cerebral Palsy, which meant he was dependent on my help. I asked my mom what Cerebral Palsy was when I found out I was going to be babysitting him. She compared Matthew to Tiffany. My sister babysat previously for Matthew and informed me how to feed, wash, and change him. I then grasped on what my night would entail, and I became nervous—but a good nervous.
But babysitting Matthew was different from helping Tiffany. I now had to give my attention and assistance to him. I never knew someone could be so dependent, yet so happy.
In that moment, I understood. Matthew and Tiffany are different, yet they are similar. But they both were happy. Tiffany and Matthew taught me to understand people: how they feel, how they communicate, and how they react. Matthew and Tiffany taught me how to hold a conversation with anyone, while making them feel special—and happy.
At seventeen, I thought I would never see Tiffany again. But then, I volunteered with Special Olympics. And I saw Tiffany at one of the events. During the awards, I felt a light tap on my shoulder, and heard my name. As I turned, I saw sixteen-year-old Tiffany with her same glowing smile. She remembered me.