I’m the mother of an outgoing boy who has autism, and like many in my boat, I harbor plenty of concern for his social life. My little man is in the third grade now, and he’s been fortunate enough to attend an inclusive public school where classmates, to date, have treated his differences as no big deal.
I tell myself everyday how lucky we are, but I also hold my breath as he forms friendships with his “neurotypical” peers. Will these friends stick around in the long run? Do they truly enjoy my son’s quirky, single-minded nature? Or is it that their parents encourage them to accept him – because it’s the right thing to do, because it’s what I would do with my other children? They’re still pretty young, but I realize that soon socializing gets more complex. Soon rebellions and popularity contests will hit the surface; his friends could start to turn on him as they fend for themselves in the choppy sea.
And yes, I know this issue isn’t unique to the autistic set. All kids face it. I have twin daughters, as well, two young social butterflies who do not have autism. They’ve been through their share of fickle friends, but they themselves are fickle, too. They have an ingrained understanding about the push and pull of those relationships.
Little Man, on the other hand, is not fickle. He is earnest, honest, and steady. He clings to consistency as if his life depended on it. Social nuances are not instinctive to a child with autism. They can be learned, but there’s a level of trial and error involved that his neurotypical peers naturally skip. The closer he becomes with them, with the consistency of them, the harder the rejection will be when it’s time to move on.
There’s one particular boy I’ve been sweating about. He’s an outgoing, athletic kid who’s already a standout among his classmates – let’s call him Jack. Jack has taken more than an interest in my son, he has made it his mission to be friends with him. They were assigned to different classes this year, but Jack still finds me on the school yard after school every week, gives me a play by play about their latest interaction – anything from a hello at lunch to a shared handball court – and begs to come over for a playdate.
To me this is almost unnatural. Don’t kids their age tend to be caught up in whatever and whoever is in front of their faces? This boy is a “cool kid” who could easily make friends with anybody on the schoolyard. Why is he so persistently focused on my son? Now, Jack’s mom is one of those empathetic parents I mentioned above, one of my family’s cheerleaders. And last year I guessed that Jack’s behavior was really a product of her encouragement. Or maybe he just liked hanging out at our house, stocked with cute little sisters, sofas you can jump on, and a trampoline out back.
But this year, Jack has taken his interest to a whole new level. Without any prompting from me, he now begs to take my son over to his house after school. And Little Man goes into this strange new domain, happily and without supervision! Last month Jack and his mom even took him to the pet store! These are monumental events for us. And nerve-wracking events for me as I ponder the future.
A week ago Jack’s mom took my son out on a second outing with them. I was teary-eyed, because it meant that the first one had gone well, that she wasn’t hesitant to handle my son. She sees it as no big deal. Afterward, I thanked her profusely, and told her how lucky he was to have a friend like Jack. This is it: We autism parents are programmed to feel lucky when we have tolerant and kind people in our lives. We can’t count on that from everyone. We don’t take anything for granted.
Her response was not what I expected. It’s what spawned this article. “I should be the one thanking you,” she said. “We are the lucky ones. My son is the best version of himself whenever he’s with your boy.”
She probably didn’t know how profound the mere idea of that was – that my son was the good influence in that relationship. My son, who at the age of three was kicked out of preschool, who at the age of five still had two-year-old tantrums, and who even now can’t sit quietly anywhere. It was a battle to get him placed into a class of neurotypical role models. Now someone was telling me that he’s actually a good influence on them?
After that, I started watching Jack and my kiddo interact together through a different lens, through Jack’s mom’s lens, one she was gracious enough to share with me. She didn’t see our past, and she probably didn’t try peaking into the future as much as me. She only saw the right now. And here’s what I’ve learned, looking at the right now…
Dammit, she’s right!
My kiddo’s most obvious features – his earnestness, awkwardness, and need for consistency – they completely wash away any tricky, competitive or defensive feelings in Jack. My son disarms him with his predictable nature, and Jack matches honesty with honesty. It must feel like such a relief to swim in the still, dependable waters around Little Man, safe from the swirling current of impending adolescence.
So I would like to turn on its head this notion of how lucky we autism families are. Perhaps your “normal” children could also benefit from having friends like my son in their lives. My kid is socially reliable to a fault. He will never lie to your daughter or bully your son. He won’t be the one talking back in class, or pitting the other kids against their teachers. My kid has worked twice as hard as yours for half the amount of acceptance from the world. And like it or not, the world tests and strengthens his ability to adapt a little more with each passing day.
He’s a role model in his own right, dammit. By the time those choppy waves do roll in, the odds are pretty good that my son will have either learned to surf, or figured out how to build a solid raft. Your child might just be begging for his company then, for a safe spot by his side. And then you’ll realize why your kid is lucky to be friends with my kid (with autism).