Nichole Zumbach Harken was sitting on the bleachers, watching her son play his football game when she snapped a few photos of the team on the sidelines. She didn’t think much of the seemingly typical snapshots until later when she looked a little closer and saw what else the camera caught, bringing her to tears.
Nichole Zumbach Harken captured the photos of her 15-year-old son Tucker as he stood with his team during a football game, a scene that wasn’t much different from any other Saturday afternoon on the field before it. However, Harken would soon make a startling discovery about her son — and herself — after attending this particular football game. While his parents were sitting just feet away from the kids on the sideline, there was something else going on that Harken didn’t realize until her son pointed it out to her, and it left her jaw on the floor.
Tucker is a very likable guy, who is pleasant to be around and has a keen sense of humor. He’s also autistic, which is often all anyone sees. With her son’s diagnosis, Harken accepted that it would be difficult for him to make and keep friends, but that doesn’t make it any less heartbreaking when you see your child constantly separated from the group. That’s why one picture she snapped really drew Harken’s attention. Tucker is #39 in the photo below, but what he said about it later was a lesson that all of us can learn from.
While going over the pictures that she had captured on that particular day, Harken quickly noticed that Tucker wasn’t standing with his peers. Instead, he was apart from the others on his team, standing off to the side and alone. In an essay posted on The Mighty, a website geared toward those with disabilities and their families, Harken wrote about how this one photo helped her learn about the way her son’s mind works and how she found comfort in that. He might have been standing alone, but she knew that he didn’t feel lonely.
When Tucker was in the fifth grade, he was asked to participate in a research study of children with high-functioning autism. During the study, he was asked about his interactions with other people as Harken sat in and listened. Tucker pointed out that he doesn’t have friends his own age when he was asked if he had a lot of friends at his school. The researcher quickly expressed sadness over Tucker’s response, but he corrected the interviewer, explaining that he actually has many friends. But, what really stunned his mother is who Tucker said those friends are and why they are his friends.
“Oh, I have friends. Lots of them. My mom’s friends. The people that she works with really like me. Then I have my dad’s friends; I have all kinds of grownup friends,” Tucker told the researcher, explaining that his friends are adults because they don’t treat him like kids his age do. Where kids treated him like someone who has been diagnosed with autism, adults just treated him like a kid.
“So, I decided to just be friends with grownups. Really it’s a lot easier. I know they will take the time to try to understand me. They will be kind to me. They will not make me feel sad. So, I just choose to be friends with grownups,” Tucker explained, adding that his teachers, coaches, and Lisa from Kwik Star, a convenience store, are included in his circle of friends.
“She’s my friend,” Tucker said, speaking of Lisa. “She always makes me smile and always talks to me,” he added. Unfortunately, his experience with his peers was much different. “The kids make fun of me behind my back when they think I can’t really hear them. I can tell they don’t really want to be my friend. They don’t choose to sit by me. They don’t include me in their parties. They don’t take the time to try to understand,” Tucker explained as his mother’s eyes welled up with tears.
Both Harken and the researcher couldn’t believe the profound lesson that they heard from a fifth-grader, who had no clue about the gravity of what he said. Tucker is okay with himself and his relationships, choosing to be friends with those who want to be friends with him and not worrying about the others.
“What a phenomenal experience — to hear your child accurately describe his difficulty with peer relationships is amazing and heartbreaking,” Harken wrote. “He understands his experience. He was (and is) mature beyond his years — making the conscious choice to be with those who want to be with him and not worry about those who don’t.”
The validation of Tucker’s words sank in at that moment when his mother gazed at the pictures of her son, who is completely happy and aware of who he is. Although she teared up, Harken added that the football picture of Tucker standing so far from his peers, which used to bother her, doesn’t affect her that way any longer.
“So, that picture above? It used to bother me — but it doesn’t anymore,” Harken said, referring to the football photo. “I’ve realized that if it doesn’t bother Tucker, then it cannot bother me.”
Nichole Zumbach Harken’s son Tucker has taught her so much about what is important in life. “Being with those who want to be with us… not worrying about those that don’t,” she wrote, describing the best lesson Tucker has taught her. “It took me 38 years to learn that; it took him 10,” she concluded.
Indeed, Tucker is happy and secure in himself because he doesn’t waste his time worrying about those who don’t want to be with him and instead focuses on those who do. It’s a lesson that many, many people never learn — no matter how far into adulthood they get.