What’s it like to go to school but have no friends?
To spend recess alone, while everyone else laughs, runs and plays?
To invite the entire class for your birthday party, only for no one to show up?
Mason Neill, a first-grader at Lincoln Elementary in Exeter, would tell you exactly what his life has been like. But you have to know how to interpret his actions, and listen very carefully when he does talk.
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At 7 years old, Mason struggles to speak clearly.
His mother believes Mason has some level of autism, as well as three confirmed mental disorders, all of which have slowed his development.
“Mad,” Mason slowly says when asked if school makes him happy, sad or mad. “I wish ... I wish I could stay home.”
Trisha and Tim Neill, Mason’s parents, know how difficult school has been.
For his teachers in getting Mason to focus and learn.
For Mason’s classmates in getting to know and accept their son.
All Trisha and Tim want is for their child to feel normal. Since the day Mason was born, though, he’s never experienced normalcy.
Mason was born at 10:14 a.m., his mother vividly remembers. He didn’t take his first breath until 10:31 a.m. In between, Mason never opened his eyes or cried. His body laid limp briefly on Trisha’s chest before nurses rushed him away so doctors could try to figure out what was wrong.
It isn’t exactly clear how those 17 breathless minutes affected Mason’s brain.
Trisha said doctors told her the rough birth isn’t what led to her son’s current condition.
Nonetheless, Mason has been diagnosed with sensory processing disorder (trouble receiving and responding to information that comes through the senses), oppositional disorder (defies authority on occasion) and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).
Mason often bangs, claps, yells, and fidgets — seemingly random to many.
But it’s his way of communicating.
He’ll pace back and forth in the classroom sometimes when students are supposed to be sitting, partly out of rebellion (oppositional disorder) but also because of his ADHD.
His mom has observed kids’ interaction with Mason. Mostly, they ignore him, she says. Sometimes, they walk away when he starts talking or tries to engage with them. Mason has a habit of getting too close to anyone’s face when trying to have a conversation.
“Mason acts and says he’s angry,” Trisha said. “I believe he’s really sad. He really just wants a friend.
“He wishes he could tell them: ‘Please, just give me a chance.’ “
Messages left with Exeter Unified administration and the Lincoln Elementary principal were not returned this week in hopes of discussing Mason’s difficulties at school.
Trisha, who works as a substitute teacher for the district, said Mason’s teacher this year has been “real good and patient.”
Having a teacher’s aid in the classroom to help monitor Mason has helped, too, she added.
Trisha is also hopeful Mason won’t have to repeat first grade.
But an area Mason continues to struggle at is connecting with his peers.
“I’ve seen him in the sandbox with a lot of other kids in there with him,” Trisha said. “They’re all playing in their group. Mason is just digging a hole by himself.
“It’s heartbreaking to see as his mother.”
As word spread through social media of Mason’s struggles to make friends, many in the Exeter community and throughout the central San Joaquin Valley have extended their friendship.
An estimated 100-plus people participated in a rally at Exeter in support of Mason.
Organized by Visalia resident Jason Philbott, bikers from around the central San Joaquin Valley (as far north as Coarsegold) escorted Mason to his school Friday morning, then cheered him on as he entered Lincoln Elementary.
“We want to show Mason what it’s like to have friends,” Philbott said, “and people who care about you.”
Many of the bikers were once part of the defunct Central Valley group called “Guardians of the Children,” which aimed to fight against child abuse.
Though the group disbanded, many of its members still feel passionate about helping children like Mason.
But it wasn’t just Philbott’s friends and the biker community who showed up for the rally.
Tulare County Fire brought out two fire trucks to participate in the parade. The Exeter Police Department came out assisted, too.
“It started as an escort and turned into a celebration,” Philbott said. “The response has been crazy. People have been excited, wanted some face time with Mason, brought him gifts.
“We want him to know that we want to be his friend. Maybe that’ll help get things started at school.”
Trisha takes a deep breath while talking about Mason’s daily challenges, then she sniffles.
“Seeing our amazing community coming together like this, this is wonderful.” Mason’s mother said. “I love seeing Mason happy.”