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The Daily Southtown, Tinley Park, Ill., Donna Vickroy column

The SouthtownStar - 8/26/2017

Aug. 26--Anyone who's ever been to high school knows it can be a social minefield, especially for kids who are sensitive, quirky or in any way different.

But for Ian Ryan and Mason Kalnins, differences became the foundation for a friendship that has survived all kinds of challenges.

Ian has Type 1 diabetes, which has caused him to "grow up fast," his father said.

Mason has autism spectrum disorder, which, although he is high functioning, has caused him to struggle with social communication and to develop some quirky habits, his mom said.

Both teens recently finished up at Oak Forest High School. As Ian prepares to go away to college and Mason begins an adult transition program in Orland Park, both are grappling with the realization that after six years of sticking by each other, they are about to head their separate ways.

Each has advice for the other:

At his graduation party, Ian put his arm around Mason, who had stepped outside his comfort zone to attend, and said aloud, "Mason, when you start your new school, I want you to talk to people and make lots of friends. I know it may be scary but if I hadn't talked to you back in sixth grade, I wouldn't have known all the great things my best friend has to say."

Weeks later, seated at the Kalnins' kitchen table, Mason said to Ian, who would leave for Wisconsin Lutheran College in a few days, "Ian, I want you to talk to people. Make new friends."

The teens have learned a lot since they first met in middle school but perhaps the most significant lesson came outside the classroom.

"Accept people for who they are. Don't try to fix them or change them or make them fit in," Ian said. "Just accept them."

Although mainstreaming children with special needs into typical classrooms and social activities has helped diminish some of the stigma in education, Ian said, it can still be considered unusual for a kid on the autism spectrum to be best friends with a kid who isn't.

"I don't see our friendship as being unusual, although others do," Ian said. "I think there are probably more friendships like ours but they don't get publicized."

True friendship is a treasure

Brad Sikora, principal of Oak Forest High School, said it's a treasure when a student forms a genuine friendship.

"A lot of people have acquaintances or teammates but this is a true genuine connection. I think they'll be true, lifelong friends," Sikora said. "There's research out there that says forming strong bonds, genuine relationships brings long-term benefits to both partners in a friendship."

Both Ian and Mason have benefited from being friends with each other, he said. Mason learned to expand his comfort zone and Ian found constant affirmation and support from a peer.

Letting a student learn how far he can go in life is part of the high school process, Sikora said. "We try to create for all students the least restrictive environment."

It's a team effort, he added, one that relies on the cooperation of staff, parents and, of course, students. In this case, he said, the parents are extraordinary.

"They consider each other family. And the kids are pretty remarkable, too," he said.

The Kalnins and the Ryans said they feel the same about school officials.

At District 228'sAug. 15 meeting, Mason's dad, Marty Kalnins, addressed the board.

He thanked school officials for helping his son receive a great education and then presented a plaque of friendship to Ian.

"Tonight, we would like to thank an exceptional young man, Ian Ryan," he told the board and then relayed many stories about how Ian's acceptance and inclusion of Mason had further elevated the life a boy who doctors once said would never walk or talk.

How they met

It was during lunch at the start of sixth grade at Jack Hille Middle School that Ian noticed Mason sitting by himself.

"I didn't think that was right so I decided to go sit with him," Ian said.

He didn't know anything about Mason's condition at the time but he quickly realized his new friend had some peculiar eating habits.

Because of his diabetes, Ian was mindful of nutrition even at such a young age. And, because he had to be responsible at such a young age, his father said, Ian developed a deep sense of empathy.

"Mason would pull the cheese off his pizza and then only eat that. Or he would eat cookies and Diet Coke. I thought he's got to be starving," Ian recalled.

One day Ian came home and told his mom his concerns. Kathy Ryan helped her son look up the Kalnins' phone number.

"I didn't want to be mean or anything, but I thought Mason's mom should know he wasn't eating a real lunch," Ian said.

Kristine Kalnins was impressed by her son's new buddy and invited him over so she could explain Mason's condition.

"From then on we've been best friends," Ian said. "We sat together every lunch from sixth to eighth grade and then we took on high school together."

Like a lot of teens, Ian and Mason spent their free time playing video games, goofing around and indulging in copious amounts of Taco Bell and Wendy's fare.

At first, Ian said, other kids questioned his friendship with Mason.

"But after they saw us laughing and having a good time, they started to join us at the lunch table," he said.

Ian, who has played baseball since he was in grammar school, convinced his friend to join the cross country team, so they both could be in a sport at the same time, even if it was a different one.

Kristine Kalnins, who now works as an advocate for parents of children with autism, said, "Mason never would have joined a team without Ian's influence."

The step, she added, changed her son's life. "He's made tons of friends through cross country and each season has won the 'Most Inspiring Athlete' award," she said.

But Ian is quick to point out, "It wasn't all just me giving to Mason. He has done so much for me. Having Mason in my life has made a huge difference."

Tom and Kathy Ryan say their youngest child was born with "a big heart," which can be both a blessing and a curse when navigating the trenches of high school.

"Ian has always been the kind of kid to stick up for the underdog," Tom Ryan said. That, he said, sometimes put a target on his son's back.

So much of high school, Ian said, is about fitting in.

"But when you get older it's not about how many friends you have. It's about the real bonds you have," he said.

In the Kalnins' kitchen, just days before they head down their separate paths, the young men embraced as they talk about the future: Mason would like to become a train engineer; Ian has his sights set on being a professional baseball player or marketer for the Chicago Cubs.

Among the many things the teens have learned these past years is the definition of a good friend.

"It's looking beyond differences," Ian said. "It's accepting each other and being there for each other, being supportive."

For Mason, the description is much more terse.

"The definition of a good friend? The definition of a good friend?" he asked aloud and then paused before answering:

"Ian."

dvickroy@tribpub.com

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