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

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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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Sad News

Sophie the sea lion. Photo credit: Smithsonian National Zoo
Sophie the sea lion. Photo credit: Smithsonian National Zoo

I am devastated to report that Sophie the sea lion was found dead this morning. She was only two years old. The cause of death is still undetermined, and she seemed fine the night before her death. This is a huge loss, and my thoughts are with the entire Smithsonian Zoo family. Sophie was a beautiful, playful animal who brought great joy to everyone who visited her. She especially enjoyed interacting with children, much to their delight. Sophie had many more happy years ahead of her, and will be greatly missed.

I have been having crying spells ever since I heard the news, and don’t know how I am going to tell my children. We all loved her, and my boys consider her a very special friend. We first met her in February when she played with my youngest son, who has an Autism Spectrum Disorder, and it truly was one of the most incredible, beautiful experiences of our lives. A video of  the encounter received some media attention and provided an unexpected opportunity to spread Autism Awareness. We were finally able to go back and visit her just two weeks ago, and my children played with Sophie for over an hour. I am so glad we got to see her one last time, and can’t believe she is gone. I am absolutely dreading telling my children the sad news.

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Sophie, we will miss you so much! Thank you for being our friend.