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When a child's physical or emotional needs are unique due to autism, Down syndrome or other conditions, simple things like attending a high school dance or getting a hair cut can be a challenge for the kids and their families.
This year was a banner year for stories of people stepping up to help these kids create special memories. From tailored birthday party invitations to glamorous photo shoots to a new Sesame Street character — here are our favorite stories of people who went the extra mile in 2015 to understand and help kids with special needs.
Christopher Warner, a 10-year-old with Down syndrome, was given the chance to attend a Maroon 5 concert in March, and to meet Adam Levine backstage after the show. When his nerves got the best of him, Christopher hid behind his mom and crouched down onto the floor. Without missing a beat, Levine suggested that everyone get down on the floor with Christopher, saving the meet-and-greet for the young fan.
When three middle school basketball players overheard bullies making fun of cheerleader Desiree Andrews, the boys walked off the court and came to her defense. Desiree, who was inspired to become a cheerleader after seeing a character with Down syndrome become one on the show Glee, has since been embraced by the members of the basketball team, getting high fives and fist bumps from the boys and being announced as a part of the team's starting lineup.
In fourth grade, Ben Moser made a promise to his friend, Mary Lapkowicz: that he would take her as his date to their high school prom. Ben fulfilled his promise in May, when he escorted Mary to prom after asking her to be his date by giving her a sweet cluster of balloons that spelled out 'prom.'
7-year-old Timothy Rhynold had never attended a birthday party, as his mother, Tricia, feared he would be overstimulated in such a setting due to his autism. But, after a classmate's mother sent Timothy an inclusive invitation, Tricia penned a viral Facebook post thanking the family for their kindness. Timothy was able to attend his first birthday party, and had fun celebrating with the birthday boy.
After a child with autism began making loud noises during a performance of the King and I, Broadway performer Kelvin Moon Loh took to his Facebook page, admonishing members of the crowd who criticized the boy and his mother during the show. "When did we as theater people, performers and audience members become so concerned with our own experience that we lose compassion for others?" Loh asked in the touching post.
Parents of autistic children cheered in October, when a new Sesame Street character debuted. Julia, the first Sesame Street character with autism, was created to be a relatable character for both children with autism and their peers, who may have difficulty understanding the needs of their autistic friends.
Parents of special needs children rejoiced when Target, in a Halloween ad, featured a child with arm braces and crutches donning a sparkly Elsa costume. One mom, Jen Kroll, took to her Facebook page, praising Target for making her daughter, Jerrensia, feel proud of her prosthetic legs and arm crutches. "Including children with special needs into advertising makes them less of a spectacle to the general public when they venture out into the real world. Normalizing disabilities in children is PRICELESS," Kroll wrote in her post.
James Williams, a barber from Wales, spent months trying to find a way to cut little Mason's hair. Mason had recently been diagnosed with autism, and was unwilling to be touched on certain parts of his head during hair cuts. However, with the help of a smartphone and Williams' willingness to get on the ground with his young client, Mason finally underwent a successful haircut. Williams' photos of the experience went viral, with many touched by his display of patience and concern for his client.
Through her photography business, Fairyography, Heather Larkin dresses children with special needs in fairy and princess costumes, creating beautiful photos for their families. After two of her young clients died — one from pediatric brain cancer and one from a heart condition — Larkin started a yearly memorial photo shoot, where kids with special needs are nominated to receive one of her portrait sessions. Larkin has photographed children with genetic or medical disorders, as well as victims of trauma or abuse.
The crowds, lights and noise associated with a visit to Santa can be difficult for children with autism to take. So when Erin Deely learned that her son, Brayden, was autistic, she abandoned the idea of photos with Santa at Christmas. However, thanks to a program organized by Autism Speaks, Deely was able to take Brayden to a "caring Santa," who got down to the floor and made Brayden's visit to the North Pole magical.