We all want to feel happy, connected, and accepted. Sometimes that is found in ways we least expect.
One late winter day my family visited the zoo in Washington, D.C. It was early and we had the underwater viewing area at the sea lion exhibit all to ourselves. My youngest son had on a jacket with contrasting colors and we noticed it seemed to catch the attention of one particularly curious sea lion. I starting recording as the two darted back and forth on opposite sides of the glass, and she followed his every move. When my son realized what was going on he joyfully cried out, “She likes me!”
My son is *Autistic, and social interaction as well as playing with other children is sometimes hard and complicated. Some research has shown that children with Autism and other disabilities are actually 2-3 times more likely to be bullied by their peers. They also often find it easier to relate to animals and can connect with them more easily than with people.
My son was thrilled to find a playmate that day and to feel free to be himself. It came so easily. All the sea lion wanted was to play, and nothing else mattered; not social rules, not appearance. Just fun.
We learned later that the sea lion was named Sophie, and she was famous for interacting with her visitors. She accepted all potential playmates equally, but I would wager that few were as enthusiastic as my youngest son. As their game of follow-the-leader continued, he exclaimed, “THIS IS THE BEST THING OF MY LIFE!”
That day we knew that we were not only watching something joyful, but also something beautiful. She had given my son an unexpected gift, and we all appreciated her friendly nature.
My youngest son and his older brother played happily with Sophie for almost an hour that day, and then we finally had to head home.
Later we talked as a family and my son decided that he wanted to share the video with a message of Autism acceptance. We were stunned by the response, and the original version of the video spread over countless media sources and all over the world.
My son was proud, because he had hoped that the video would make people smile and help teach them a little bit about autism. When people responded to it as well as the message of autism acceptance we knew it had succeeded. We were amazed that a simple, happy video also had the power to help make the world a better place!
A month after the video was taken we visited Sophie again, and that time we came prepared with a shiny pink ball. Sophie loved it. We know she didn’t remember us, but we remembered her!
Sadly, less than a week after our second visit she was found dead in her tank. She was a beautiful, unique, and playful creature. My children were devastated to learn about the death of their new friend, and I shed many tears myself. Two years later we still talk about her with a smile and miss her, and are all grateful for the few happy moments we all shared.
No matter where we find it, friendship is always a gift.
In remembrance of Sophie I edited a new version of the video (featured at the top of this article) and added music. The song “Holy River” was written by Eric Lewis, performed by Once Hush, and is used with permission.
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*Yes, I use the word Autistic, and that’s okay. Autistic is not a bad word. An increasing majority of individuals prefer to use identity-first language rather than person first.