I don’t want people to see him as the autistic kid; I want them to see him as Eli.”
"Alright Eli, say ‘goodnight’ to everyone and say ‘I love you’ to everyone,” Mr. Zacharias says to his son, gesturing to the company that was soon to be leaving their house.
Eli beams up at his father, a bright and kind smile on his face, and prepares to speak.
“Say ‘goodnight’ to everyone and ‘I love you' to everyone!” Eli repeats his father’s words back to him, word for word.
This is a true occurrence that happened with Mr. Zacharias and his son recently. During the chapel on October 30, Mr. Zacharias spoke about his son Eli, and what his son’s life has been like during the past four years. When Eli was around 20 months old, he was diagnosed with autism, which is the typical age that autistic symptoms start to present themselves. In these 4 years, Eli has been through more than most 4-year-olds have, but this is not all that there is to Eli and his story.
How does Mr. Zacharias actually see his son? That can all be summed up in one word: awesome. “He’s just awesome. His favorite song is ‘Spirit in the Sky,’ which is an 80’s rock song. He loves that stuff. Basically, any songs from Guardians of the Galaxy, he can sing along to. He’s funny, and he’s got a great sense of humor — he’s got a 4-year-old version of my sense of humor. He’s very sarcastic, very dry, and he loves to play with his siblings.”
When Eli was born, he did not present any autistic symptoms. “Eli did not show any signs of autism until about 18 months, when he started showing signs of autism. 18 months is typically the first age where you can diagnose autism. He was diagnosed shortly after that, when he was about 20 months old,” said Mr. Zacharias.
Right after Eli was diagnosed, he started to receive therapy. “We gave him early intervention therapy, speech therapy, occupational therapy, for about 10 to 12 hours a week. It was a lot, but the payoff is that he’s verbal now, and he really has grown in leaps and bounds in many ways. He’s had to overcome a lot more than I think the average four-year-old has. But, if he keeps up the way he’s going, we have high hopes. He’s pretty incredible.”
One of the reasons that caused Mr. Zacharias to want to speak in chapel is the culture that he sees in the world. “There’s a lot of people out there where if they do something that some people may define as awkward or weird, they get jumped on, immediately,” Mr. Zacharias said. “The way I see it, Eli will be able to come here in ten years. I’ve got ten years to get the school right; it’s a slow process, and I’m not expecting anything to change overnight, but my hope and my prayer is that I can start a conversation.”
However, it is not just a simple conversation that Mr. Zacharias wants to start in EC. “With that conversation, I hope I can start having people recognize how they need to be more empathetic and understanding,” says Mr. Zacharias. “I don’t want to do it in a way that makes people feel attacked, because nobody ever changes when you attack them, but I want people to feel like this is a good thing that they can do. Hopefully, in the next ten years or so, the culture can shift towards a more understanding culture.”
Through experiencing this, Mr. Zacharias has also recognized more about himself and his worldview as well. “I’ve recognized how unempathetic I am, and how blunt, and sometimes unkind I can be. I think that’s come out in the need to be more patient with Eli than I thought I’d have to be. I have to be aware of his needs, and how to phrase things.”
That is not the only thing that Mr. Zacharias has realized, either: “I’ve always been a big fan of diversity, and I think if we’re all created in God’s image, in order to create this full image, there needs to be a variety of different people. This should also include neurodiversity, which means having a diverse group of people in terms of neural ability. That has become more important to my eyes, and it seems like a natural extension of diversity to me.”
As for his son, Mr. Zacharias says, “He’s simply this awesome 4-year-old kid that’s just a little bit quirky sometimes. I don’t want people to see him as the autistic kid; I want them to see him as Eli.”