S.C. football players befriend bullied autistic second grader

S.C. football players befriend bullied autistic second grader

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S.C. football players befriend bullied autistic second grader

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Through lessons of acceptance, Centerville (Anderson, S.C.) Elementary School teacher Teresa Sanders has made a difference in her classroom and in 8-year-old Nathan Johnson’s life.

So, as one way to help him, Sanders set up a time for some Westside (Anderson, S.C.) football players to visit Nathan at Centerville, which like the high school is in Anderson. Nathan, a second-grader, was diagnosed with high-functioning autism at the end of last school year, which explained why he was having difficulty in school and was being teased by other children.

“I knew getting some football players out here to walk with him would help him know he’s really special. He’s brilliant. I figured it would lift his spirits and encourage him and boost his ego,” Sanders said. “This would be like, ‘Wow, Nathan’s really cool.’ It would give everybody a different look at who Nathan is and to get to know him as an awesome kid, not just someone with a disability.”

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After running several laps around the track Monday afternoon, Nathan stood holding Westside player Dionte Osbey’s hand as Osbey pushed another child on the swing. Though Osbey and teammate Lummie Young had a swarm of children around them while they ran, what made it worth it was to see Nathan’s smile as he ran alongside them.

“It was an eye-opening experience,” Osbey said. “A lot of these kids need guidance, and I’m glad I could be there for them. Just being there for him (Nathan) and letting him know it’s OK to be different and that there are friendly people out there.”

“Everybody’s special in their own way,” Osbey added.

Nathan said he felt happy running with the football players.

“It’s awesome,” he said.

Nathan’s mother, Karen Johnson, said her son seems normal to a stranger, but with his behavior and his outbursts in response to things said to him, it made people think he was being defiant. Children would taunt him just to get see his reaction.

“He didn’t have a lot of friends who would stand up for him,” Johnson said.

The children picked on him during school and also at running club. When Sanders found out about it, she worked to a put a stop to it. To help her other students accept Nathan, Sanders told her class that it’s OK to be different. But in the second nine weeks, she started noticing that it wasn’t just his classmates who teased him, but third- and fourth-graders as well.

With the help of therapy to learn social cues and his teacher, Nathan has begun to form more friendships with his classmates, and the teasing has stopped.

“She (Sanders) has been great for him,” Johnson said. “She’s taken him under her wing. He needs to feel safe when he’s at school and not nervous because he’s afraid he’s going to be triggered. She really has created a nice, safe environment for him. She doesn’t let any of the kids pick on him.”

Johnson said it alleviates her nervousness to be in constant communication with Nathan’s teacher and exchange updates about him.

“I feel a whole lot better,” Johnson said. “I feel like he has another parent there who’s going to watch out for him.”

Typically, each week at running club Johnson sits under a shelter at a picnic table behind the school and watches her son to make sure he’s OK. But after a few months, she’s starting to relax. As she sat in the shade watching the football players run with Nathan on Monday, she said it was great for her son to see acceptance.

“For me, it was, ‘OK. He’s going to be OK in this scary world,'” she said.

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