In the month of April, we celebrate autism awareness month. I would like to celebrate these last few days by beginning a conversation about autism and friendship, but not in a way that you might naturally consider. There is lots of information about how to help neuro-typical children understand and be good friends to children with autism. You can also find great resources on helping your child with autism understand friendship. I am grateful for these resources and applaud the amazing strides we have made for not only awareness but acceptance. My hope is to open up conversation about how a child with autism can be a good friend to a neuro-typical child. This idea was planted in my head after my son and I attended a birthday party a year ago for a school friend whose family I did not know very well. While the children were jumping at the massive trampoline park, I thanked the mother for the invitation. She looked at me and said, “I was surprised that my son would want to invite your son to his birthday party.” From her body language, I could tell that this was not a snub on my child being different although I will say my heart ached. Through continued conversation, I realized she marveled at the fact that her son considered my son a good friend. I heard two things in her statement: She was happy that her son includes children with differences and she marveled at the idea that a child with autism could be considered a good friend.
Can a child with autism make a good friend? I think so. I think there are many benefits to having a friend with autism. Disclaimer: This blog is about my son and what I see in him. I was once told and have repeated often, “When you have met ONE child with autism, you have met ONE child with autism.” Truth. So, if you have a child with autism, you may find similarities in our stories or you may not. You may not have a child with autism or your neuro-typical child might never have encountered a child with autism wanting to be his/her friend. No matter your situation, I hope these shared stories open up conversation between parents because parents will be the ones to help foster openness to a true friendship with a child with autism. I hope these stories foster better communication between parents and children about unique friendships. I also hope that these stories empower parents of children with autism to share their stories. May all of our lives be enriched through the power of shared stories.
- My son had the privilege of attending an amazing school called Rivendale from age 3-8. This school worked with students with autism but also included a preschool for neuro-typical children. This school cultivated the type of environment every mom dreams about for their child in that instead of focusing on the deficits, we focused on finding out each child’s unique gifts. Every child learned that they had strengths and areas where they struggle but the hope was to instill confidence that we can celebrate our strengths and put energy towards our struggles. Peyton’s confidence and acceptance of who he is as a person is due in large part to this school. He will talk about his struggles with autism openly because he accepts that all people have different struggles in life. He will also come home and say, “I rocked that STAAR test!” Where lots of children have anxiety about large tests, he knows that he will do his best.
- Here is a story from a neuro-typical friend we met when he was 5: Ahlante was lucky enough to create some great friendships during his time at Rivendale. As with all childhood friends, each one influenced him in a different way. I believe the most valuable lesson taught in his short time with Peyton and his other friends was that of acceptance. As I look back, I don’t believe there was ever a time that Ahlante mentioned a difference between him or the other neuro-typical children and the children with autism. He was taught that a friend is a friend no matter if there are differences in behavior. This valuable lesson has made a great impact on Ahlante during his elementary school years. He has been chosen for several leadership and mentor roles and continues to see people for who they truly are.
- We noticed around 6 months that he was not reaching milestones and I began to read about autism and the importance of early intervention. We pushed for an early intervention program and after his first birthday, we began therapy. Peyton was taught to be interested in playing with toys and not just sit on the floor and flap his hands. He was taught to roll, to crawl, to walk, to talk and even to chew his food. Trained therapist lead Peyton’s teaching, but I taught him on a day-to-day basis. Many times even my own family thought I was being too pushy or too hard on Peyton. My dad felt like I was not loving and accepting him for who he was but as his mother, I knew that if I did not push then I would not get the opportunity to know my son. So, I would push up to the edge of total meltdown (mom and son meltdown!) and then reward for progress made. This was a brutal process on me and on Peyton but now I have the awesome privilege of knowing this beautiful soul . He is my hero.
I believe in the power of sharing our story. I open up most of Peyton’s school meetings with reminders of where we started at age 1 and how far we have come. Just last year, I was told that because of his IQ, he would plateau after second grade level work. I reminded where we have been and how far we have come and so I asked that we not let that scientific information cloud what we ask and what we expect of Peyton. I want him to be challenged and now we have grown academically more this year than ever before.
- One fall day after church, his friend wanted to play tackle football in our fellowship hall. As the Associate pastor at our church this is not something we condone but these things happen! Well, after this friendly game, Peyton got in the car, grabbed his wrist, turned white and started sweating profusely. Not knowing what had happened, we drove home quickly and applied ice. As he sat on our love seat with an ice pack, I asked him what happened. He said, “my friend wanted to play tackle football.” I followed this with another question, “Peyton, you don’t like tackle football so why would you join in?” His sweet little face looked up at me and said, “But my best friend wanted to play.” To him, an opportunity to play with his friend was worth an afternoon spent at Urgent Care.
- We had a child at school who was annoyed with my son’s repetition of a certain word. This child wrote my son a note that told him he wanted to kill Peyton because Peyton was annoying him. The school handled the situation beautifully but so did my child. We talked about the situation and he shared how fearful he was about going to school and I let him know that he was safe. He then said, “Mom, (friend’s name)’s parents are going through a divorce.” That is all he said but I was given a window into the beautiful soul of my child that saw through another child’s behavior into the reason for the pain and anger.
- He has faced so many challenges in life not only with autism but with the diagnosis as failure to thrive and now ID (intellectual disability) but he faces them all with such acceptance and courage. This week, he is preparing a report, slide show, and practicing presenting all the information to his class. He picked his favorite NASCAR driver, Jeff Gordon. He was very proud to show us at home all that he had worked on at school. After he showed us his work, I asked him how he felt about standing up in front of the class to present. He said, “It’s fine.” I told him that I stand up in front of people every Sunday and that I still get nervous every single time. He said, “I am not nervous. I just present the information I have worked on all week.” I never possessed that kind of courage as a 5th grader.
- One summer, we decided to pick up a few friends and head to the water park. We love water parks and all the slides except for the ones that go straight down! Peyton’s friend had never been to a water park and was very scared but excited about trying the slides. We arrived at the water park and headed for the family slide so that all of us could go on the first slide together in a large tube! At the end of that ride, Peyton was so excited to talk to his friend about his experience on his first water slide. The friend confided that he liked it but was not ready to try any of the other slides. I held my breath thinking that Peyton was going to be frustrated about not going on a different slide but he replied, “That’s ok. Let’s do this one again!” The entire day at the water park, we rode the same slide over and over again.
- My friend whose daughter has autism sent me a story about friendship that I would love to share. She considers her daughter to be severely affected by autism:
My son’s best friend is a little girl whose mother is a special education teacher. This little girl also has a very compassionate heart and is not afraid of my daughter. One day, my son and his friend were in the backyard jumping on the trampoline. My daughter kept looking out the window, so I let her out to join them. As I looked at the kids jumping on the trampoline, that’s exactly what I saw. Three kids. Not two neuro-typical children and one with severe autism, but three KIDS. Three kids jumping and laughing and having fun. It was then that I realized that friendship doesn’t have to involve words. The smiles on the three children’s faces spoke volumes about friendship.
I was listening to my children talk about making friends one day in the kitchen. My neuro-typical daughter has a very difficult time connecting to her peers and sometimes just prefers to spend time on the playground alone with her thoughts. She told my son that she makes friends over a longer period of time. My son replied that if he wanted a friend, he would walk up and say, “Hi, my name is Peyton” and then he has a friend. Sometimes I have to remember that beginning a friendship can be that simple.
Do you have a child with autism and have a story about friendship to tell? Do you have a neuro-typical child who has a friend with autism? We need to hear your stories so please share your stories in the comments section. As Peyton says, “Let’s do this thing!”