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Tribune News Service

For this 9-year-old with autism, ‘Let’s Go Brandon’ is just a phrase that gives him courage

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Sheletta Brundidge was trying to enjoy a family vacation. The mother of four had packed up their Camping World RV for spring break in early March for the 18-hour trip from their Minnesota home to her native Houston for the city’s Livestock Show and Rodeo.

The event included a “Sensory Friendly Day” that Sheletta said she thought her three youngest children, who were diagnosed with autism spectrum disorders, would enjoy. The carnival’s lights and music were muted for part of that day so individuals with special needs wouldn’t be overstimulated.

During the trip, though, Sheletta noticed that her 9-year-old son, Brandon, who was diagnosed with severe autism at 3 years old, was fixated on something. In the moment, she couldn’t figure out what it was.

“My baby kept saying, ‘Mom, these people love me here!’ ” Sheletta said. “And I was like, ‘What are you talking about?’ ”

“He said, ‘They’ve got my flags all over the place. They’re cheering for me!’ ”

It wasn’t until the family was riding in a golf cart around the RV park the following day that it became clear what Brandon was talking about. He called out to Sheletta and pointed to a flag mounted atop a nearby RV.

“Mom! There’s my sign!” Brandon said.

“And when I looked up,” Sheletta said. “It was a Let’s Go Brandon flag.”

Origin of a phrase

Sheletta has more than 20 years of experience in news broadcasting and runs a podcast focused on the stories and concerns of the Black community. Given her familiarity with media, and her news consumption habits, she said she was immediately aware that the Let’s Go Brandon flag was not intended for her son.

It is in reality a slogan of the politically conservative, borne of a NASCAR Xfinity Series race in 2021, that went viral and has become a not-so-coded criticism of President Joe Biden.

The phrase caught on after Brandon Brown won an Xfinity race at Talladega, and was told by a reporter during his post-race television interview that fans behind him were chanting, “Let’s Go Brandon.” They were actually saying, “(F-word) Joe Biden.”

The “Let’s Go Brandon” slogan has since exploded in popularity in right-wing circles, and has been referenced in a tongue-in-cheek manner on Capitol Hill, launching Brown and NASCAR into an “unwinnable culture war,” as The Associated Press described it in February.

Just above the flag that Sheletta and her son saw in Houston was a second, red-white-and-blue flag that read, “Don’t blame me. I voted for Trump.”

‘Have courage and try your best’

But 9-year-old Brandon didn’t understand the political implications of the sign, and Sheletta said she didn’t tell him.

She doesn’t plan to any time soon.

“He’ll be grown before he finds out,” she said.

Despite the phrase’s deeper meaning, the blissfully unaware 9-year-old took the meaning he derived to heart. His family noticed a change in Brandon’s attitude during the trip. As the golf cart sat parked in front of the flags, where Sheletta captured a video of Brandon explaining what he saw, his two younger siblings, Cameron and Daniel, sat in the back of the cart repeatedly singing, “Let’s go, Brandon! Let’s go, Brandon! Let’s go, Brandon!”

Brandon said the flags, signs and cheers made him feel more encouraged, and have given him confidence as he battles social anxiety that is common for children with autism.

“It means to have courage and try your best,” Brandon said.

Negative into a positive

The story became the basis of the children’s book Sheletta co-authored and published in April for Autism Awareness Month. The book, titled “Brandon Spots His Sign,” is the latest in a series of books Sheletta has written about her children’s experiences with autism. The books are aimed at educating others, particularly other children, and giving families dealing with autism “hope.”

“You think, ‘This is it … He is always gonna be vulnerable,’ ” Sheletta said. “But then you read a book to let you know it’s going to be OK, to just keep trying, just keep pressing. Don’t give up hope. That’s what I want to offer parents, is some hope.”

The book details Brandon’s attitude shift, and how seeing the Let’s Go Brandon flags helped him overcome his nerves around participating in activities like swimming, public speaking and playing sports. One of the final pages of the book includes a list of 10 ways to help encourage people with autism. The first suggests asking if someone wants to participate in an activity.

“I might say, ‘No thanks,’ and that’s OK.”

But after seeing his sign, Brandon became more willing to join others.

The flags weren’t the only factor Sheletta pointed to as helping improve her son’s socialization and behavior during his autism journey. She cited the rigorous therapy he’s participated in, as well, but the internalized encouragement from the slogan certainly didn’t hurt.

He read his book to a group of classmates last month.

“They were talking about my book, about every single page!” he said. “And they wanted to buy it!”

Sheletta insisted that there’s no political agenda behind Brandon’s book, but she said that she wrote it in part “to show how you can take something that was meant for ill-intent or evil and turn it into good.”

“It’s just a little boy who saw a sign, who got encouraged, and he’s better on his autism journey,” she said. “... My son is too young to vote, but his story and how the Let’s Go Brandon flag impacted him is special and it needed to be told.”