A new friend.
Let's be honest. It was perhaps the first or second friend my younger son could claim. That was a direct result of the type of autism he had, and it was the darndest thing. With a casual glance or two, a person may not realize how deep, if at all, his issues ran.
"Higher functioning" autism can be quite deceptive.
In reality, he struggled in many areas, most notably in his attempts to make friends. He would like to have them, but he just did not know how do make them. His best opening lines usually sounded something like, "Hey, I know everything there is to know about the mating period of the ancient Megaladon. Do you? Really, I could also tell you how most modern day sharks mate. Do you wanna hear?"
That wasn't exactly a crowd pleaser.
He didn't understand how to approach people, not really. He didn't pick up on social norms. He stood in people's personal spaces and was even known to hiss and lick others as he pretended to be different animals. Those weren't the kind of deficits that children easily forgave.
So, when he recently became friends with a neighborhood boy, I was thrilled. They seemed to bring out the best in one another. They had common interests--Big Foot and bugs and things of that sort. My son had a twinkle in his eyes that I didn't often see, and then, unexpectedly, he turned to me and said that he wanted to invite his new friend to our home.
Yes, I said to him. Yes, of course he may come to our home. I didn't hesitate to answer. However, after that, I just froze. A friend. In our home. We didn't really do that.
It's just that, my older son never had friends. Even at this stage in his life, at twelve years old, he would sometimes react to other children in his small class, but he didn't play with them. He didn't walk over to them and motion for them to share with his toys. He didn't motion for me to invite other children to our home.
No. That was not where Big Brother's interests lay.
It took years of work for him to get to the stage of even tolerating other children in the same room with him--other children, with their loud noises and unpredictable actions. I'm grateful that he can enjoy a moment or two with his peers. Thank you medication and maturity.
And so it has been left to my younger son to blaze the social trail in our home. You know, the shark boy. The licker. The boy who is also school phobic and receiving his classes at home. Our social calendar has had cobwebs on it for a little while. We'd simply been tackling larger issues until, WHAMO, our family's social event of the year sneaked up and sucker punched me. I barely had recovery time when I was forced to look into the excited eyes of my son, who was waiting for my answer.
Yes, I said to him. Yes, your friend may certainly come to our home. No problem at all.
HOLY BLEEP! My mind went into overdrive as it started going through the overwhelming list of problems that were naturally coupled with letting a non-family member through the threshold of our front door: How bad is the pile of clean laundry that was in the living room? How long will it take for me to tackle that mountain of dishes in the kitchen sink? Were the dirty clothes still lying on the basement stairs, you know, that third stop on its long trek from our upstairs bathroom down to the basement laundry room? Ohhhh, boy, that was when my cheeks burned as I realized that I really could not remember where I'd thrown my spare bra the night before while rejoicing at the realization that I could finally, finally--THANK YOU THERE IS INDEED MERCY IN THIS WORLD--finally go to sleep at the end of the long day.
There was no question. Our family was not fit for public.
Whatever. I would make it work. Besides, they were boys. Boys didn't care about things like dirty dishes when there were cool things sitting on the counter next to those dishes like tanks of tadpoles, fish and a gecko.
Yes, I said to him. Yes, you may have a playdate.
Then I stopped myself. At ten and twelve years of age, the boys wouldn't call it a 'playdate', right? Good gosh! This household had no idea how to have friends!
I couldn't remember the last time I brought my son and a friend over to our house to play--or to 'hang out'...or, whatever. I was sure that it had been years--long enough ago that I had to facilitate. But these boys weren't little. My jumping into their space would be an insult.
So, when they got to the house, I hung back, at least a little bit. When dealing with autism, it is never good to hang back too far.
I was not looking at them.
I was not looking at them.
I was not looking at them.
Who was I kidding? I was totally looking at them. And, it seemed to be going okay. It really did. They grabbed the tadpoles in our tank, and they held the gecko. They checked out the giant snails that were slurping the algae on the sides of our fish tank. Once they moved to their favorite nature show to delight over the python barfing up its recently consumed chicken, I smugly admitted to myself that we absolutely had the coolest place in town.
I no longer needed to pretend not to look, I thought, because we rocked. We simply rocked, and this playdate, um, er, uh...this time to 'hang out'...was running itself. And that was when I heard it.
"Hey, man," the friend said, "do you want to go outside?"
Outside? Ohhhhhhh. Thaaaaaaat.
Outside. He meant that place on the other side of our kitchen door. The place with no air conditioning. Where the weeds grew. Where the neighbor boy thankfully mowed once a week. That place. Oh. Well. Nobody really went out there.
It was the land where nothing had worked. Motor planning had never worked. Help from therapists had never worked. My bright ideas to teach play had never worked. Our landscaping? Pffft. Never worked. And, my dreams of watching my children run happily while having friends over during glamorous cook outs, well, those had never worked.
I watched the two new friends as they walked outside to that land where things never worked, and they stood, unsure of themselves in their bodies, their new friendship and that strange environment. They opted for two tire swings that I had mounted myself from the massive maple that stood near my kitchen window. I was sure it would see years of summer fun from my boys.
I didn't know that vestibular sensory systems would render those tire swings virtually unused.
Soon, Friend jumped down from the swing and looked around. From the kitchen window, I looked with him. My eyes became those of a twelve-year-old boy's, and I mentally wandered the yard with him past the quiet see-saw and the small jungle gym, beyond the sandbox with plastic animals. There was a smattering of punctured inflatable toys lying lifelessly around the yard, a graveyard of carcasses left to their fate.
I'm positive that when Friend said, "Hey, man, do you want to go outside?" he wasn't asking to play on the see-saw.
That is how I felt for this new stage of life. Both my son and I we not practiced in something seemingly so simple to the rest of the world as having friends. Those driving by this house just see our peeling paint and poor landscaping. Inside these walls, the ones I rarely leave, we've worked on tying shoes for ten years. And brushing teeth. And how to sit.
I guess we are still working on those.
Our yard wasn't just a graveyard for dead inflatable toys. In lots of ways, it was also a representation both of a life gone by and a life never lived. Toys never used, toys under-used and toys forgotten. It was a physical representation of our mental state, and, watching my younger son as he twirled himself sick on his tire swing, I felt a pull to not let it define his future efforts as well.
"Hey, guys," I called to them. "Why don't you come hang in our basement?"
It wasn't perfect, but it was better than our yard.
"Dude!" I heard my son say for perhaps the first time in my life as the happily ran through the door. "Do you want to come to my room?"
"Ok," Friend said, and they both ran up the stairs, promptly slamming the door behind them.
Pre-teens. In the room. Closed door.
That's a whole other issue. A normal issue. But, for that day, I was willing to take it!
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