Last year, I started a Facing My Fears series, writing about the fears I have for my son, about school, about being different, about not learning, about missing out. I knew there were more fears and one in particular - about friends. But I couldn't bring myself to write it. Which means it's a hard one. *deep breath*
Jack laid on the floor of the waiting area in the hair salon, playing with the fire truck. It had a start-up sound AND a siren. So, even though the doors didn't open, he liked it. Laying on the floor like that, he looks younger than his seven years.
A little girl wearing a pink tulle ballerina dress and blonde pigtails sashays into the room. She's about three. Maybe four. She looks at me and smiles. "What's your name?," she asks. She has such clear speech and in-your-face curiosity that I'm stunned. I always forget that kids so young can talk and interact so ... directly. So straight-forwardly.
Jack gets up off the floor. He steals a secret sneak over his shoulder at the hem of the girl's dress. He shifts his attention back to the fire engine. The little girl gets a purple princess castle out of a bin and puts in on the floor.
Jack, turning the siren on: There's a fire at the castle!
I feel a spark of pride. I like that he can, right now at least, feel comfortable enough to play the way he wants to. Usually, other kids are sensory overloads. They move too fast, make too much noise. They wear dresses or they talk too fast or too much, preventing Jack from doing what he wants to do.
So right now, I'm just happy he can be in the same space as another child.
Of course, I don't leave it there. In my mind pops up the little, "Well, there was almost interaction." Intrusive thought, disturbing the peace.
And the thoughts don't stop.
Does he need a peer-group friend? Is peer-group even relevant to Jack's social needs? What about social needs that he wants, not that others think he should have? What if peer-group isn't what he wants? Boys his age with the superheroes, soccer, loud voices, fast movements, in his face?
What's a peer group for anyway? Peer groups so often start the "normalization" process, the part where kids embarrass or bully each other into conforming to perceived standards. Peer groups that distill individual kids into gender-specific roles - with "girls can't be astronauts" taunts or "boys can't use pink bowling balls" rules. Or into so-called "social norms" like "what is he doing" sneers about flapping or run-dancing. Where the peer group weeds out those who are different and threatens those who don't conform. Yeah, all that good stuff.
And what exactly is his peer group? Is same-age even the right fulcrum to balance relationships on? I think about relationships and how we interact. How we get satisfaction from shared interests, shared journeys, not shared ages.
I turn my mind back to Jack. He is interested in people. On his own terms and time, he interacts with them. He likes people.
But he can't interact with people or with kids on demand. He can't respond to direct questions. He has to stare to process a person's face and actions. He can't hear when he's processing a face, actions, or movement. He can't hear words when more than one person is talking. He ignores all sounds, including speech, when it's too noisy. He can't see in a crowd.
If Jack had to pick a best friend, it would be Ryan, a grown-up player who comes over several times a week. A friend who plays, who Jack talks to about things he likes - keys, cars, bowling competitions. Who swings him, throws with him. Whom he asks questions to: about his girlfriend, car, mom, meetings.
Jack doesn't interact with Ryan the way that other kids do with their friends. He doesn't. For all the same autistic reasons he doesn't act the same as other kids. He gets overwhelmed by emotions, fatigued from processing, too tired out for new ideas or more conversation.
How he acts or interacts, whether it's different from other kids, or his own unique style, doesn't matter. That's all my interpretations, or someone else's. The only question that matters is: Is he getting his social needs met? Social needs like independence, autonomy, decision-making, equality, satisfaction from a relationship.
Playing with Ryan does give him some of that. It's some independence away from me, his parent. It's autonomy about what he's going to play. He's getting practice in a relationship. He feels equality, for the most part, with Ryan. He's was surprised when he learned that Ryan doesn't live with his mom. But comforted that he lives with his girlfriend. That's like a mom, right?
Maybe it is enough.
I don't want to force a peer friendship because I think it's what he should have. I always carry the thought that Jack's age will catch up to his sensory needs and interests. That when he gets older, his peers will have finally slowed down, quieted down, and become interested in the things Jack likes.
I have to go back to that thought. Because that fear comes up inside me. That fear when I read some of the adult sons' interviews on The Thinking Person's Guide To Autism. When they say, "I wish I had a girlfriend. I really wish I had a girlfriend."
I wish they did, too. Or a boyfriend. Or just a friend. I have the same prayer that so many of us mamas do. Please let my son have at least one quality relationship. One in which he is happy. One for when I am not enough. One for when I am not here.
That fear hurts. And I have to sit with it for a moment. Hello, fear, my old friend. I know you. You're the fear I had when my daddy left me. You're the same fear that I wouldn't find a life partner. You're the fear that I will be alone. You're the fear that my son will feel alone.
I force my thought to others. The rest of my family. The magic cousins. My friends. Their kids.
Sometimes we cannot fix all the things that might happen to our children. Sometimes they won't happen. Sometimes they will and it will still be okay. Or they will have strength. We can't live the future. We can't live their lives.
So, go back to right now, mama. Jack is happy. He likes people. He likes life.
He is happy. And that is enough.