April was National Autism Awareness Month, and it holds a special place in Chris Wauben's life. His 8-year-old son, Simon, has high-functioning autism. Beachgoers may have seen Wauben on Clearwater Beach this month or on one of the many other tribute runs he has taken to the beach in recent years. He runs for hours, carrying a giant American flag and, in this case, an autism flag as well.
Recently, Wauben's heart was broken when Simon told him that he had been bullied. He said kids called him "odd." We spoke with Wauben, who lives in Holiday, about what inspires his runs and about his efforts to shed light on autism. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about one in 59 children has been identified with autism spectrum disorder. Autism creates challenges with social skills, repetitive behavior, speech and nonverbal communication. Below are excerpts from the interview.
Tell us about your son's bullying problems.
I never realized there was an issue, but one day I asked him how he liked his new school and he said, "Oh, I really like it because there's no bullies." I was shocked.
How was he bullied?
Nobody would eat lunch with him. He was isolated. I'd occasionally go in and eat lunch with him so he wasn't alone. He said people were calling him names and stuff. They were calling him "monkey pants" and "fat boy."
What did you decide to do?
I needed to give out a message that (having autism) is okay. People who have it need to know they're not alone. There are actually millions of people, very successful people, who have it. They need to know there isn't anything wrong with them. They're just different.
How are you delivering that message?
I'll be running up and down the beach for two, maybe three hours, carrying the American flag with an autism flag underneath it. People stop me for photos, to tell me their story and hear my son's. I occasionally run the beach, but this one is for Autism Month awareness.
You've also got a music video about autism (I'm Autistic). What prompted you to make it?
When he started at his new school, I decided I needed to do something to hammer in the message that there isn't anything wrong. It's okay. I needed other people to know that and, of course, him.
In the video, you use ever-changing costumes, colors and guitars. Does that represent anything?
People with autism like bright colors. Schools with special programs for autism have sensory rooms that are brightly colored. That kind of went in to my thinking of my video. As for the costume thing, I like to be as entertaining as possible so people aren't bored with it.
Are there any particular hurdles Simon faces in life?
Bullying, isolation and low self-esteem. We give him an incredible amount of love. We literally tell Simon we love him about a hundred times a day to make him feel really, really loved. That's the best thing you can do to help children with autism. Realistically, there's only so much you can do to stop the kids from bullying and picking on your kid. I think if you make them feel loved and give them a lot of self-esteem, they can rise above all the negative stuff going at them.
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