Autism and the special, special education

Dec 24, 2012 at 10:30 a.m. ET

The burials began Monday, Dec. 17, just three days after evil rained down upon Sandy Hook School in Newtown, Connecticut. On Saturday, Dec. 22, just two days before many of the massacred would have, should have, celebrated Christmas Eve with their families, the last of all 26 innocent victims were laid to rest in peace — their souls bound up in the bonds of eternal life.

Sandy Hook Funeral Home, Newtown, Connecticut

Twenty-six souls — 20 of them forever 6 and 7 years old — lost amidst a haze of gunfire, gunpowder and violence. Within minutes, they were gone. Within hours of hearing that their loved ones had perished, families, still in the throes of denial and anger, began to compose stories of their loved ones. These were based upon the Pulitzer Prize–winning New York Times "Portraits of Grief" section, which was created in response to the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

The profiles were "stories, anecdotes, tiny but telling details that seemed to reveal something true and essential about how each person lived.... The profiles... were closer to snapshots — concise, impressionistic, their power at least as much emotional as intellectual. And, they were utterly democratic." And yet, "each profile is only a snapshot, a single still frame lifted from the unrecountable complexity of a lived life."*

Like an onion, layer by layer the stories and faces of the Sandy Hook School victims came into focus. And, like an onion, each individual story brought tears to our collective eyes as we learned about each person unfairly robbed of the chance to reach his or her full potential and each family robbed of helping make those dreams a reality. We learned about the child who wanted to be a firefighter... the teacher who hid students in the closet... the boy who idolized the New York Giants... the teacher who idolized the Miami Dolphins... the girl whose mother finally allowed her to wear her favorite dress to school that fateful day... the boy who enjoyed playing baseball with his dad... the extraordinarily smart and cute boy gunned down, while his twin sister survived... the first-grade boy with special needs found cradled in the arms of his special education aide, who also died as she tried to shield him from harm.

Dylan Hockley and Anne Marie Murphy

Sandy Hook Memorial, Newtown, Connecticut

The. First. Grade. Boy. With. Special. Needs. Found. Cradled. In. The. Arms. Of. His. Special. Education. Aide. (In fact, at least two children with special needs perished that day.) Dylan Christopher Jack Hockley, age 6, and his special education aide Anne Marie Murphy, age 52, entered into eternity together. Like Dylan, whose family lives 20 minutes from my own, my son is a first grader with autism spectrum disorder. Like Dylan, my son is in a typical classroom and has a one-on-one aide by his side. And my heart and soul believe that Ethan's educators and paraprofessionals, as did Dylan's, would sacrifice their lives to protect his. There but for the grace of G-d go I...

Just as Anne Marie had loved and protected Dylan during his short life, she loved and protected him during what was, hopefully, a death without suffering.

"We take great comfort in knowing that Dylan was not alone when he died," his parents, Ian and Nicole Hockley, said.

They went on to say that "Dylan loved Mrs. Murphy so much and pointed at her picture on our refrigerator every day.... Though our hearts break for Dylan, they are also filled with love for these and the other beautiful women who all selflessly died trying to save our children.... We cannot speak highly enough of Dawn Hochsprung (principal) and Mary Sherlach (school psychologist), exceptional women who knew both our children and who specifically helped us navigate Dylan's special education needs.... Dylan's teacher, Vicki Soto (who died trying to save the children in her classroom), was warm and funny, and Dylan loved her dearly."

At Dylan's funeral, his mother told a story about asking Dylan why he sometimes flapped his arms, as some children with autism do. Given Dylan's limited language, she expected no answer. But Dylan surprised everyone when he said, "Because I am a beautiful butterfly."

Catching up

Outside, after Dylan's service, the mourners watched as Jake, Dylan's brother, released 26 symbolic balloons — 20 purple for the children, six white for the adults. After a beat, another purple balloon was released, which drifted up to the others, in a proverbial game of catch up. You see, when you have a child with autism, you learn that your child's life will be one long symbolic pursuit of catching up.

A woman of valor

At Anne Marie Murphy’s funeral Mass, led by Cardinal Timothy Dolan, the archbishop of New York said, "Annie's life and death bring light, truth, goodness and love to a world often shrouded in darkness, evil, selfishness and death."

Her Mass began with a reading from the Book of Proverbs ("A Woman of Valor"): "She opens her arms to the poor and extends her hands to the needy.... Many women do noble things, but you surpass them all.... Honor her for all that her hands have done and let her works bring her praise."

Even in death, Anne Marie will protect children with autism; her family requests that in lieu of flowers, donations be made to Autism Speaks.

Divine intervention

While the Hockley, Murphy and 24 other families mourn their loved ones, here I sit in my own home, blessed to faintly hear my son playing the piano in another room. I am moved and awed to hear him play Led Zeppelin's "Stairway to Heaven," a song he's never played before. Perhaps Divine Intervention, or Anne Marie's and Dylan's spirits, are responsible. There is no logical way to explain how my son, out of the blue, plays a new song whose apropos lyrics talk about "a lady we all know, who shines white light and wants to show, how everything still turns to gold."

Surely, Anne Marie is the lady who shines light and goodness, as she continues to assure Dylan that everything will be all right. Except this time, Dylan no longer needs to be cradled in the safety of Anne Marie's loving arms. Now, Dylan truly is that beautiful butterfly he always wanted to be. And this time, when he flaps his wings, he can ascend the stairway to Heaven all by himself. He is, after all, a butterfly. And butterflies are free.


Throughout the year, especially during the holiday season and in the wake of the Newtown tragedy, my husband and I would like to recognize and thank the Anne Marie Murphys in our world, our very own "Women (and Men) of Valor." Their love and light protects Ethan every way, every day.

School: Alison Mata, Bobbi Burns, Caitlin Massey, Caren Kemp, Catherine Carmona, Cheryl Bliss, Christina Andreassi, Dawn Collins, Dawn Sutfin, Ed Huydic, Elena Wetmore, Jessica Olson, Jennifer Nolan, Jessica Rohr, Kelly Conte, Linda Codeghini, Linda Johnson, Lindsie McLean, Mary Imperioli, Matthew Barrett, Sandra Resnick, Susie DaSilva and Valerie Babich.

Private: Barbara Greenspan, MS, OTR (pediatric occupational therapist); Bekah DeMieri, MT-BC (music therapist); Emma Caplan (friendship circle volunteer); Janaya Jones Hernandez, BCaBA (adaptive gymnastics); Joan Faulkner, R.P.T. (craniosacral therapy); Kathleen Stowell, MA, PT, C/NDT (physical therapist); Michael Weiss, PhD (applied developmental analysis); Rachel Stanford (friendship circle volunteer); Salko Farm & Stable (horseback riding); Shari Goldstein, CCC-SLP (speech-language pathologist); Stephanie "Stevi" Giurco, OTA (therapeutic/aquatic recreation and occupational therapist); and Tom Crowley (music teacher).

*Nancy K. Miller, "Portraits of Grief: Telling Details and the Testimony of Trauma," Differences: A Journal of Feminist Cultural Studies 14, no. 3 (2003): 112–135.

Image credit: Bizu/

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