Friendships can be elusive when you are on the spectrum.
As a parent, one of the key things you want for your child is for him to ‘have friends’. At the end of day 1 at school the first question we are likely to ask is, ‘Did you make lots of friends?’ Then there is, ‘Who did you play with today?’, ‘Do you want to invite your friends over for a playdate?’ and ‘How many friends do you want to invite to your party?’
A parent’s world revolves around our children ‘having friends’.
Because friendship equals happiness. Doesn’t it?
The more friends you have, the happier you are. Aren’t you?
It has taken me many years to realise that pushing Geordie into friendships actually has the opposite effect.
For the first few years of his ‘social’ life (i.e. preschool, Kindergarten and, to a lesser extent, the ‘toddler room’ at childcare) Geordie played alongside other kids. He didn’t really ‘engage’ with them, even when, on the odd occasion, other children tried to get him to engage.
In toddlers, this is referred to as ‘parallel play’ — small groups of children playing next to each other, maybe with the same equipment, but each one is involved in their own game; playing ‘next to’ each other, not ‘with’ each other.
As they get older, certainly by the first year of school, children generally progress into more social play — sharing not only equipment and spaces, but ideas and scenarios. This is when things start getting noisy. Disagreements can erupt. There is lots of stuff going on in all directions.
Of course, when Geordie was at this age, I didn’t know what was going on. All I saw was my little boy not playing with other children and sometimes having meltdowns over something as simple as another child trying to get him involved in his or her game.
It was devastating to watch.
Equally as distressing were the times playdates were being organised (around us, not involving us) and party invitations handed out. Some parents invited every single child to their kid’s party. Others made a great show of having their child personally hand the invitations to ‘their friends’.
In my mind, Geordie was lonely. He had no friends to play with so had to be by himself. In reality I was seeing things that weren’t there at all.
The thing is this … it was devastating and distressing to me … not to Geordie. He either didn’t realise what was going on, or he didn’t care. When he was old enough to respond himself to playdate and party invites … he often declined (and still does). In hindsight, he knew more about himself than I did — social occasions in an unknown location equals sensory overload, and sensory overload is not good.
Even when I finally realised this, I still struggled with the notion that other kids had lots of friends and Geordie pretty much played by himself. I had to watch him and convince myself he was happy … and he was. More importantly, this alone time was also his downtime — a time when he could be himself and not have to worry about all the confusing rules of social play. His stuffed dog, Fifi, filled this gap perfectly. Geordie knew Fifi’s rules and Fifi had no expectations.
At the end of his Kindergarten year, Geordie changed schools. The students in his new Year 1 cohort were, and continue to be, an amazing group of children. They rallied around the ‘new kid’, inviting him to join their games and sit with them in class. When he ‘ignored’ them, they didn’t ignore him back or make him a pariah — they just kept trying. It was persistent, but not obtrusive.
I have to emphasise here that I have never, in over 20 years of teaching, seen a whole group of children respond this way to another child. Geordie was welcomed and accepted for who he was; this reaction has persisted for six years.
So when I saw a quote on Facebook about Eeyore, I knew I just had to write about it, because (apart from the depression bit) this quote sums up Geordie and his cohort to a tee:
One awesome thing about Eeyore is that even though he is basically clinically depressed, he still gets invited to participate in adventures and shenanigans with all of his friends. And they never expect him to pretend to feel happy, they just love him anyway, and they never leave him behind or ask him to change. (from Facebook post : Elephant Health and Wellness)
While I cannot justifiably say this group are Geordie’s ‘friends’, he certainly doesn’t refer to them that way, they all engage in the epitome of ‘friendship-like behaviour’. The best part of this behaviour is the fact they have never asked or expected him to change. This is huge because I cannot say the same thing for the majority of adults and other associates (including so-called professionals) we have come across.
As for friends — Geordie has one friend.
The two of them are like chalk and cheese, and they complement each other beautifully. This friend was part of the Year 1 cohort who did not give up on Geordie … and this friend was the sole child who broke through into Geordie’s world. It took him over six months, but he did it. They have had their spats, their ups and downs (as happens in all friendships) but at the bottom of it all lies the fact they both accept each other for who they are.
I would rather Geordie have one friend like this, than dozens who want him to move with flow and conform to ‘their way’.