Autismsupportnetwork.com: Awareness is everything

Liz Becker

There may be a day when Matt will not get a photo with the Hokie Bird. But it will not be this day.

That was my train of thought as we prepared to go to the 2018 Spring Game at Virginia Tech. Last year we didn’t get that desired photo – the Bird never got close enough and we could not get through the crowd when he was. Matt had several photos, some taken at a distance and a few close-ups, but it wasn’t a “win” if he didn’t get a hug. Now, a year later, Matt was overdue for that Hokie Bird hug. His resolve was as great as my own when we arrived on the campus. Both Matt and I knew today was most certainly going to be the day.

It was a beautiful day – warm and breezy. Matt was in high spirits. It was looking like the perfect day – and in all respects so far, it was. As with every “big day”, Matt had not slept the night before. Too much excitement, too many hopes and dreams on the line to rest. He was running on nervous energy – focused liked a laser on hunting that Bird.

We entered the South gate and walked around and did the tunnel lap. As we walked I had Matt practice, “Hi Hokie Bird! Can I get a picture?” Matt practiced the sentence several times until he felt sure he could do it. If he found the Hokie Bird and I wasn’t with him, he needed to be able to speak the words – or be ignored like he was at the Duke game. At that game, Matt simply could not say the words and I was much too far back to help him… he never got his hug.

We had time to kill and so we went window shopping at the Hokie Store, checked out the views from various openings and took pictures – lots and lots of pictures. No matter where we were or what activity we were doing, I knew Matt was on the lookout for that elusive rare creature. We all looked, but none of us spotted him. It was time to find our seats.

We found some great seats on the South end in the end-zone – Matt is very fond of the end zones more than the general home team stands. In his mind, the Hokie Bird loves the south end zone. That’s because there were several fall games over the years where we witnessed the bird hanging out and crowd surfing at exactly that location – and now, this is where we go in hopes of not just watching, but participating in the fun.

Unfortunately, the last few years the Hokie Bird had avoided the southern end-zone at the Spring Game. Would he again this year? Tom had come with us to help us in our quest – and that meant there were 3 sets of eyes straining in search of that maroon mascot.

It was getting close to game time when Matt yelled out, “I see him!” pointing toward the opposite end zone. There, just outside the tunnel, was the Hokie Bird, doing his happy strut in front of the general seating. We watched as he waved and strutted and did a cartwheel for the kids in the far end of the stands… but he wasn’t coming our way – nope – He seemed to just be focused on that one area – where loads of children had gathered to wave and watch.

Oh Hokie Bird, please come this way…. But no. The bird was pretty much going to stay right where he was.

Will he get a chance to hug the bird? Will the bird come this way? Will he disappear like last year before the end of the game, giving us no way to catch him? I had promised Matt we would get that bird this year . . . I had PROMISED!

I jumped to my feet and shouted, “Come-on Matt!” before I even realized what I was doing. I headed down the steps and called behind me, “Hurry!” Matt popped up and hurried to catch up. This momma was on a mission, and Matt knew exactly what that mission was and where I was headed. But the way was blocked… only those with special passes were allowed on the field before the game. Matt was hesitant – because he knew his momma did not belong there.

We both made it down the steps, but as I went onto the field, Matt stayed behind the gate – hesitant and unsure. The closest official gave me “the look” – that stone face, immoveable, professional guard type look that makes even the biggest fans quake. He stared me down and said, “Do you have credentials to be on the field?”

“No sir, I do not.” I admitted, “but we need to get a picture of the Hokie Bird with this young man” and then I leaned in and begged. “This man is autistic and that Hokie Bird means everything to him. I just need a picture and we will come right back”. I’m a mom… a mom of an autistic adult who loves that bird… I am not above begging.

As I spoke to the official, Matt stayed behind the gate watching. There he waited apprehensively – He looked absolutely terrified, about to jump out of his skin. The look on the official’s face was doing its job.

The official looked at Matt and then at me, “You do not have the credentials to be on this field” then paused a second and said, “so come right back”. OMG!!! That’s a yes!

I turned and looked at Matt, “Come on Matt, hurry!!” Matt flew through the gate and rushed onto the field. I told him we could go after the bird, but we had to hurry. Matt stayed right with me as we sprinted down the sideline toward our target. The Hokie Bird had no idea of course, that he was being stalked, and he turned to head back toward the tunnel. No Hokie Bird, no!

Instead of the tunnel, the bird headed under the North stands and when we were within about 15 feet from him I yelled, “HOKIE BIRD!!”

The Hokie Bird abruptly turned and stopped. I was about 5 feet in front of Matt and had just a split second to explain to the mascot that we needed this – that Matt needed this photo. As I finished my sentence, Matt arrived – and the bird leaned into Matt and hugged him.

A hug. A Hokie Bird hug. I took their picture, then I used Matt’s camera and took a few more for Matt. Matt was smiling greatly – he had no words… They hugged again and we had to leave.

“Matt, I promised the guard that we would come right back – I promised…” Matt understood, and a way we flew back down the sidelines and back to the south end. As we approached the guard he asked, “Did you get a picture?” “Oh yes!!” I exclaimed as I whipped out my phone and found the few I had taken. I showed them to him. “You did a good thing today“, I said to the official, “you did a really great thing today….” The official smiled just for a second then immediately returned to the stone face professional – trying to hide his joy.

Matt and I returned to the stands, out of breath but elated. My knees screamed at me as I reclimbed the steps to my seat. When I finally got back to my seat Tom showed me the video of us sprinting down the sidelines . . . wow – we were really flying.

Matt spent the rest of the game relaxed and enjoying the plays on the field and the antics of the bird on the sidelines. He wasn’t anxious. He was simply relaxed and happy. All stress had been removed.

Oh wait, but there’s more…

Toward the end of the 4th quarter guess who came down to the south end zone? Yes! “Matt! Go!” I shouted and Matt jumped up and headed down the stairs. Tom jumped up and headed down with him. My knees said – ‘no… sit woman’.

I watched as Matt inched closer and closer through the crowd that had quickly gathered to see the bird. I stood up, barely able to see the top of Matt’s head – but enough to know the Hokie Bird was right there with him. He was there quite a while, not wanting to leave I bet, and I wondered, did Matt say the words? Was he able to get them out? “Hi Hokie Bird! Can I get a picture?” You can do this Matt, I cheered silently.

Shortly afterward Matt and Tom arrived back to their seats, both were smiling ear to ear. Their body language said it all. But what I wanted to know – and I was about ready to jump out of my skin – was Matt able to say the words? I asked Tom.

“Yes!! He stuttered just for a second and then said, ‘Hi Hokie Bird! Can I get a picture?’ He did it! The Hokie Bird stopped and gave Matt another hug and a high-five”. Matt proudly showed me his pictures – he was smiling greatly – and giggled – but he couldn’t speak . . . not yet. A little while later he told me all about it.

I can’t stress enough how massive this all was. As a child Matt was fixated on Thomas the Tank. As an adult it’s the Hokie Bird who has his heart. It is not just a hug, not just a high-five, and not just one sentence spoken under stress. Each has an underlying emotion. Each was huge!!

It didn’t matter that he was 32 years old or that the Hokie Bird is just a mascot. To Matt, that Bird is EVERYTHING. Not only was he overjoyed by the pictures and the touch (hugs and high-fives), but Matt was proud of himself for being able to SPEAK to his most treasured “friend”.

And just so we are clear, that official on the field that allowed us to go after that bird, did so because AWARENESS works… I saw it on his face. That official understood the second I said “autism” that this was not just some fan wanting a photo-op. He got it… he bent the rules to accommodate my son’s needs.

Just as the Hokie Bird is everything to Matt – awareness is everything to me. It allows me to do my job the best way I can.

I am Matt’s ‘Bringer of Dreams’… and today, because of awareness, it was mission accomplished.

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