There are so many holidays for kids to celebrate, most of them requiring the purchase of things. Halloween requires costumes and candy, Valentine's Day requires cards and candy, Christmas requires gifts and candy, and Easter requires baskets, commercial dyes, and...candy.
(I figure it will only be a couple more years before Peeps comes up with a Labor Day candy. Maybe little marshmallow chickens carrying "ON STRIKE" signs.)
That is why I am so glad to see that my children have embraced a meaningful holiday in Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, which has become an annual day of celebration in my family.
It started a few years ago with my son Jack, who is autistic. People with autism tend to have obsessive interests in specific things and for some reason, Jack latched onto Martin Luther King, Jr. I don't know if it was his kind face or the message of equality he learned about at school, but before long, Jack was on a first-name basis with Martin and was quickly becoming the keeper of a growing stack of books about King.
Back in 2009 when he asked whether Martin has a birthday party, we decided that he should. That led us to celebrate his birthday complete with cake that year—and every year since.
Each year, we try to perform a service, which usually means litter clean-up in our neighborhood. We watch King's most famous speech. Then we talk about the civil rights movement and equality for all. I am grateful to Jack for his interest that has given me an opening to start a conversation about equality and the importance of standing up for what is right.
This is a fight that continues to this day in terms of gay rights, disability rights, and so many other fights where those with power and privilege tread upon those without. This conversation is relevant to every human being, but it is very much present in the lives of my family, which struggles for disability rights every day. I am so happy that my children's eyes are open to important struggles that have been waging for decades.
I went to the inauguration yesterday (without my kids because, well, obviously), and over and over I heard speakers, from the president to Myrlie Evers-Williams, invoke King and the civil rights movement when talking about government protection of the most vulnerable among us.
I know that as an autistic man Jack will have to fight for his rights. I know that to most Americans, autism rights aren't even on their radar as a civil rights issue. I want my son to know that he can help lead or he can help support in the movement and he can make a difference. I want him to believe in heroes like King.
Although Jack's obsession with King has waned a bit over the years, he still lights up whenever he sees an image or watches footage of him. This year, when he had to choose a hero to draw and learn about in school, he chose King, listing his character traits as "honest, courageous, hopeful, considerate, and intelligent"—all of which are qualities I see growing in my own son.
With so many iffy role models to choose from these days, I am so proud that my children are identifying so strongly with such a great man. I will do my best to continue to encourage them in finding inspiration in greatness.
If it takes a little bit of birthday cake to make that happen, so be it.
Jean, a.k.a. Stimey, is a freelance writer who writes a personal blog at Stimeyland and runs an autism-events website for Montgomery County, Maryland, at AutMont. You can find her on Twitter as @Stimey and on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/Stimeyland.