Small acts can have a big impact. We’ve all heard this in inspirational speeches. We’ve seen memes scroll by in our newsfeed. But I’ve personally witnessed the impact and ripple effect caused by a simple act by my son’s teachers almost 20 years ago. It all started with a hug.
Like so many on the autism spectrum, my son’s first experiences at school were difficult. The kids at school either ignored him or bullied him. The teachers at this first school just didn’t work well with students who learned differently. Though he wasn’t diagnosed at the time, we could see that he was struggling to keep up with his peers, both socially and academically. He was very stressed and really hated going to school.
He was smart and loved to learn so we knew that it wasn’t him…we just had him in the wrong school. He was funny and delightfully quirky so we knew we had him in the wrong social environment.
Luckily we found a real out-of-the-box school where children engaged in experiential learning. The teachers focused on the “whole” child, their well-being and not just academics. We eagerly enrolled him for the next school year, excited that he’d finally blossom. But he was anxious and afraid that he’d be bullied again so he just wouldn’t engage.
His teachers set a plan in action (with my blessing) to see if they could break down his barriers and help him open up. We called it #ProjectHug. Every time they saw him—coming into class, or in a hallway or out on the playground—they’d give him a bear hug.
This small act was the beginning of my son’s transformation—from the boy who didn’t want you to notice him to the man who can captivate an audience.
In his own words, my son describes how #ProjectHug changed him:
When I first arrived at the school I felt I didn’t fit in. I was very anti-social, introverted, and I just didn’t want to do anything. But one of the things that changed me was that every time my teachers saw me they’d say, ‘Jonathan, how ya been buddy?’ and give me a big bone-crushing hugs.
I’d stand still and say ‘Oh my god, not again.’ It was uncomfortable but thanks to all their efforts, I started to get more self-confidence. I started talking to more people. I developed a trust in the teachers and kids at the school.
My son became more active and involved at school and a few years later earned “Outstanding High School Student of the Year” and the coveted “Stanbridge Award” for being a good role model and leader. He talked about it being the turning point for him during his high school graduation speech. It gave him the confidence to go on to college, perform in theater and become a voice actor. Today, his character voices are in video games, apps, audio stories and even a major California theme park.
Now I’m not saying #ProjectHug would be the thing to do with every child and I’m sure that his teachers would have stopped immediately if it caused my son more anxiety or stress. The point is that for the first time, we found a school with teachers who saw nothing but potential. And thanks to their creativity (and hugs) my son soared!
We turned my son’s true story into an interactive children’s book called “The Mighty League, Vol. 2: The Horrible Hug”—sort of a space adventure to an alien planet (aka a new school). You can get it for free: http://geekclubbooks.com/mighty-league-2-ebook/