The Day a Sea Lion Wanted to Play: Autism Acceptance in Unexpected Places


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!”
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The Story Behind “Sea Lion Shadow”

A short video featuring a gleeful little boy playing follow-the-leader with a sea lion somehow turned into a viral story that spread across the globe. That boy is my son, and I never dreamed that a visit to the zoo could be the catalyst for such a surprising chain of events and an unexpected opportunity, with my son’s permission, to share special-needs awareness.

(Note: revised and abridged version HERE)

My children love animals, and had been anxiously anticipating a visit to the National Zoo in Washington, DC. They could not wait to meet Bao Bao, the new baby panda. The first day that weather and circumstances permitted we jumped into the car for a trek up North, leaving early so that we could be on the zoo grounds before the buildings opened. Our intent was to get in line to see Bao Bao right as her exhibit opened, before the crowd got too large. Our walk to the pandas took us past the  took us past the Sea Lion exhibit, and we entered an underground observation area which provided a clear glimpse beneath the surface of their watery enclosure. No one else was around. A young sea lion almost immediately appeared at the glass and stared straight at my 7-year-old son, seemingly attracted to the contrasting colors on his coat. The beautiful animal began to shadow his movements and Alex cried out, “He LIKES ME!” Little did we know at the time that the sea lion was actually a girl, named Sophie, and that Sophie regularly initiates games with her visitors. My son was simply happy that, for just a moment, Sophie was choosing to play with him. I watched it, transfixed, and then realized, “I SHOULD BE RECORDING THIS!” I fumbled for the camera, fully expecting that by the time I was ready to preserve the precious encounter it would be over. While I recorded she kept pace for several minutes, surfacing only for air. I began to make suggestions (“Move left. Freeze!”) to test if she was truly mimicking him. This caused my oldest son, Zachary, to remark, “She is TOTALLY following him!” Alex, who has an Autism Spectrum Disorder, could barely contain his joy and shouted, “THIS IS THE BEST THING OF MY LIFE!” He often struggles with feelings of isolation, as do many children with special needs, and to see him so happy and in sync with his new friend struck a chord deep within my heart. Time seemed to freeze and we were mesmerized watching the two moving together as if in a dance. There was the feeling that we were alone with a magical creature in our own beautiful world.  


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Sea Lion Shadow

During a recent visit to the National Zoo my 7-year old found an unexpected friend in the Sea Lion exhibit. We were there early, before the crowds arrived, and the beautiful creature decided it was time to play. It was an incredible experience, or as my son put it, “THE BEST THING OF MY LIFE!!!”


UPDATE May 9, 2014: Sophie the sea lion was unexpectedly found dead this morning. She was only two years old. This is a terrible loss, and my thoughts are with the entire Smithsonian family. She was a beautiful, playful animal who brought great joy to those who visited her. My family is absolutely devastated. I am so glad we got to see and play with her one last time just two weeks ago. Thank you for being our friend, Sophie. We will miss you so much!