Kansas teen Tate Smith’s diagnosis of autism at age 2 sent his mother, Lisa, scrambling for answers. But first came the dread.
“I saw Tate’s future go down the drain right in front of my eyes,” the mom of eight tells PEOPLE. “One of the fears was bullying. How will he be treated at school? Will he be miserable?”
Far from it, thanks to Tate’s classmates, who for the past five years have formed a club of Tate’s peers who take turns sitting with the seventh grader, now 13, during school lunches to patiently talk over topics from movies to video games and reinforce social skills that have helped him grow and fit in – interactions that, as his mom wrote on TheMighty.com, “make him feel like one of ‘the guys.’ ”
“It’s kind of easy, ’cause he likes everybody,” one of his lunch buddies, Ethan Eckman, 13, tells PEOPLE. “He’s just a good friend and he understands you.” Adds Jordan Barth, 12: “Some people don’t really listen to you when you talk, but Tate always seems to be listening to you. And he always knows the right things to say.”
Their efforts have helped Tate thrive – and ease the burden of a grateful mom.
“The kids are just great,” she says. “They’ve become Tate’s therapists.”
Tate is the second-youngest child of Lisa, 52, a stay-at-home mom, and Shawn Smith, 52, an HVAC contractor in Baldwin City, Kansas. Lisa Smith chronicles their life with Tate and a younger adopted daughter, Sydney, 10, who has special needs, on her Facebook page and a blog, Quirks and Chaos.
After Tate’s diagnosis, “I started reading like a fiend,” she says. And at a conference, she heard about buddy programs that involved children as peers for those with the autism. “I was like, ‘What is this? Kids teaching social skills?’ A lot of the moms were like, ‘Oh yeah, this is the going thing.’ ”
She wrote her own booklet to explain Tate’s disability to kids, and in kindergarten and first grade she shared it with his classmates in cooperation with teachers and classroom specialists. “If they don’t know what the disability is, or that there is a disability, they just think the kid’s weird,” she says. “There’s no understanding, and no real compassion. I don’t think there’s anybody that Tate goes to school with that doesn’t know he has autism, and what autism is.”
When Tate began second grade, she urged Tate’s lunch-buddy program – initially overseen by a speech therapist – to be set up. Notes were sent home to parents with his classmates, asking if they wanted to rotate in. “They all wanted to do it,” Tate’s mom marvels.
Jessica Barker, a speech language pathologist who worked with Tate in fourth and fifth grades, recalls: “It’s evolved quite a bit with Tate and his age and how far he’s progressed. He’s always had to be taught those explicit rules of social communication: to make eye contact, what tone of voice to use, that facial expressions and body language are important. Also, reciprocity: He’s had to be taught that when someone asks you a question, you need to answer. Tate and I worked a lot on how not to kill a conversation. ‘Lunch bunch’ was a great way for him to take what we learned one-on-one and apply it.”
Now, says Tate’s mom, for part of his week at Baldwin Junior High School, Tate eats his unwavering sack lunch – peanut butter sandwich, no jelly, on white bread, with chips and cookies – at a table with peers and no adult. Other days he invites a friend or two to join him and a teacher to work on his skills.
His peers have seen the difference. “He’s very funny,” says Jayson Brown, 13, a lunch companion for the past three years. “He has his own personality. He’s respectful toward others. He’s changed quite a bit, just in his maturity. His manners are much better now, he’s more comfortable in his talking, and I think we’ve helped him with that.”
And Tate has helped them as well. “Being friends with him has taught me how to listen better and how to get into conversations better, and to explain better,” says Jordan Barth. “We both like it when we talk to each other. We’re just really good friends.”
Says Tate’s mom: “When I thank parents for loaning their children to me for all of these lunch periods, they often tell me that their chidden have learned more from Tate than Tate has learned from them. Compassion. Understanding. Perseverance. When they ask Tate a question, he doesn’t always respond right away. He has to process the language. Sometimes they have to repeat the question. And they stick with him. They don’t lose interest and give up on him.”
“I don’t want to make it sound like he’s cured,” she says. “He still has autism. But he’s so much more socially aware of people around him. These kids, they just stepped up. They’ve helped Tate to navigate their world. It’s helping him to live up to his potential.”
In Tate’s earliest primary grades, she says, she learned nothing about his days at school that didn’t come from an adult. “Nowadays, Tate can come home and he might tell me that Ethan plays baseball and he has three more games before his season is over,” she says. “It just blows me away. It makes me feel like Tate, who wasn’t supposed to be able to form friendships, has friends. We defied the odds a little bit maybe.”
And on those occasions when a negative comment about school is overheard from Tate’s 16-year-old brother, Levi – “a great big brother” who is nonetheless “too cool for learning,” says the boys’ mom – Tate is ready with a comeback.
“What are you talking about?” Tate says. “School is a wonderful place.”
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