The annual Rock The Spectrum concert, to benefit a local charity aimed at making Branson more “inclusive” for the families of children with autism and other special needs, is taking place Saturday, Sept. 17, at Branson Landing.
As the father of an autistic son, events like this always bring me some joy, because it’s nice to know there are people who don’t face what our family has faced who genuinely care about helping us and providing opportunities for us to go out and experience the world with our children.
I know, “inclusive” has become a political buzzword and immediately gets a number of folks on edge for a political talking point, but the word itself really isn’t necessarily a bad thing for a community to have taken place.
There have been many times over the years our family has seen the results of a non-welcoming, non-inclusive mindset and it causes harm on many levels. Allow me to give you an example of a situation which will forever be seared into my mind.
My parents had come out from Pennsylvania to visit me and the boys. Eli was only 5, and we were still working through therapies and programs to help us both understand how to communicate with him and help him in public situations. It was a real challenge at times (and it still is sometimes) but he was part of our family and so he was worth every ounce of effort.
One night my dad decided he wanted to have a steak for dinner, so we went to a steakhouse in Springfield. (I’m not mentioning the restaurant because they really had nothing to do with the really bad part of this, and I don’t want to have Google pop their name up in conjunction with this story when it posts online.)
The five of us waited for about half an hour for a booth (because it was easier to keep Eli from getting up and walking around this way) and sat down expecting typical restaurant service.
Our drink orders were taken, and then they arrived…and then we didn’t have a server come to our table for another 30 minutes.
One of Eli’s quirks during this season of life was when he got hungry, he would make noises or just keep repeating “Eli hungry.” It wasn’t screaming or something dramatic, but it was repetitious, and I know it can be irritating to some people. We did our best to keep him quiet.
My dad, God love him, went around to the tables and booths next to us and explained Eli had autism and we were doing what we could to keep him quiet. When he told the diners about Eli, you could see a physical change in their posture and faces, and most of them expressed support. I won’t forget this elderly couple who had eaten about half their appetizer who offered it to Eli so he could eat something.
Eventually we received our meals after almost an hour. Eli dove into his chicken strips and fries and was back to being happy and quiet.
This is when the waiter for the table directly behind us came up to ask the family of four sitting there if everything was good with their meal.
“It was fine except for the retard in the booth behind us,” the mother of the family said. “Hard to eat with it making all that noise.”
“I’m sorry ma’am,” the waiter said. “Could I give you a free dessert to make it up to you?”
They each ordered a free dessert.
“If I had a kid like that I’d lock it in the basement and never let it out,” the woman said to her husband, who when he caught my gaze looked away.
(I will note here when I mentioned the incident about the free dessert to the store manager, the employee came over and apologized profusely, saying he didn’t really hear what the woman said, only her stating a complaint. Their procedure when someone complained about a meal was to offer a free dessert. The kid was completely embarrassed, so I know it was a genuine mistake.)
Now, they’re lucky my dad didn’t hear them, because he would have given them a little East Coast commentary I can’t print in a family newspaper. (You don’t mess with his grandkids.) My mom was about to get up and I stopped her, because I didn’t think it would have done any good with someone so openly hostile toward Eli. Also, I didn’t want Eli to think he had done something wrong, because it’s not like he could help it.
The mindset of this woman was not uncommon in the 2000s, and a lot of the 2010s. We’d have people come to our table to tell us how we should have taught our children to behave in public places, we’d have people who would ask to move away from the “retarded kid,” we even had churches where we were asked to not sit in the sanctuary with the rest of the congregation because seeing Eli made some of their members uncomfortable. (Note: those churches were not in the Ozarks.)
Flash forward to Friday, Aug. 5, right here in Branson, Missouri.
Eli, as many of you long time readers know, loves to go to shows. He loves the music, he loves the lights, and he’s seen quite a few of the live entertainment offerings along 76 Country Boulevard. He’s been to so many shows quite a few entertainers know him by name, have friended him on social media, and when they find out he’s in town invite him to come see them. It’s been a real blessing to our family, and a boost to our hearts, to see how well Eli is accepted and loved on by the community.
We went to the Americana because Eli wanted to see the British Invasion show. (He hadn’t seen it before.) When we came in, and Eli saw the theater’s general manager Chris Newsom, he ran over and gave Chris a big hug.
Now, not everybody gets into the Eli Hug Club.
You have to be someone who makes Eli happy, and makes him feel safe, before you get into the Eli Hug Club. The moment I saw Eli running over toward Chris, I knew what was about to happen, it made my heart very glad. Knowing your child feels like he’s in a place where he’s unconditionally loved and accepted, as Eli did in that moment, is one of the best feelings in the world.
But it’s not just Chris (and CJ, and Matthew, and Adrianna, and Adam, and everyone else at the Americana) who make Eli feel comfortable. It’s been The Duttons. It’s been Clay and Tina Cooper. It’s been the Petersens. It’s been the servers at Mel’s Hard Luck Diner (especially Grace) and the staff and management at the Branson IMAX. Everywhere Eli goes in Branson, the people make him feel welcome.
And it’s not just Eli.
In my criss-crossing of the community to cover stories, I meet visitors who have children similar to Eli. They share their stories with me of how they were shocked to be treated so well at a certain attraction, or how when their child came up to a performer after a show the performer took time to actually engage with them rather than blowing them off.
It’s also not just Branson. I’ve heard positive stories about how special needs families have been treated all across Stone and Taney counties. I won’t say every story I’ve heard is good, but the good seem to far outnumber the bad, and it’s a wonderful thing to discover.
So while the Rock the Spectrum event is necessary because we can always get better at anything we do, it’s so nice to be in a community where my son and those like him can feel safe and feel like part of the family when we’re out and about town.
This means our communities are “inclusive.”
And I would hope this is one time we can all say being inclusive is a good thing.