Friday, May 16, 2014

My Girl

            One of the main features of autism is difficulty with social relationships.  This means that friendships often don’t come easy for many on the spectrum.   My son's relationship with other kids is a bit unique.  At school, Ben is a bit of a celebrity because he’s a teacher’s kid.  Everyone at the school knows me, and therefore everyone knows Ben.  Each day when we come to school, several kids stop to say hi as we walk through the hallways.  I always remind Ben to say hello back, but often he runs straight past them on his quest to get to the front of the breakfast line or to his favorite center, the Legos.  No matter where he goes, kids seem to gravitate towards him.  Ben is in the before and after school program, and those children dote on him constantly.  I am so grateful that these children seem to genuinely enjoy my son, but I remind myself that he’s five and he’s adorable, so when he acts differently or cries, the children are quick to reassure him and help to guide him to whatever he needs to be doing. Still, I worry.    How tolerant will children be as he gets older and his differences become less socially acceptable?  Will children still want to be his friend, especially if he has a hard time showing that he's interested in being a friend too?  One day a child found out that Ben was my son and told me confidingly, “Ben’s weird.”  
          “Ben’s just a different kind of learner,” I quickly corrected him, but the worry continued to grow.  How many other children are already viewing him in this light?  I know I can’t protect him forever.  Which leads me to today…

            Ben has been begging me all week to take him back to the pool.  Even though it was slightly windy and chilly, I had promised him that we’d swim after school, so after a long day in the classroom, we threw on our swim clothes and headed to the pool.
            As soon as we walked through the gate, I heard the squeal of a little girl.  “Look, Mommy, a little boy to play with me!”  Inwardly, I cringed.  I’ve seen this unfold before.  A well-intended child attempts to play with my son but soon gives up either because of being unintentionally ignored by my son or because of Ben’s uniquely imaginative play that is a little too “out there” to follow for most children.  “Give the boy a little space,” the mom implored her.  I glanced in the pool and immediately realized that this mom had her hands full…literally…with twin girls who looked to be about age two, one on each hip.  An almost four-year-old waded in the shallow end near the steps, and the oldest, a girl about Ben’s age, was swimming like a little mermaid, her long wet hair plastered to her head. 
            As soon as we stepped into the pool, the little girl was on us like glue.  “What’s your name?" I asked the little girl. 
She thought about it for a minute, and then her mom reminded her,
“Tell them your real name, honey.”  Apologetically, she said, “She’s got quite an active imagination and loves to talk.  Please tell me if she gets to be too much.” 
“No, really, it’s fine,” I assured her.  “My son’s… not a big talker and he needs the practice.” 
“I’m a dolphin,” she told Ben brightly.  “Want to see my tricks?” 
In a flash, she dove under water and burst to the top, dripping triumphantly.  Ben laughed with glee and a huge smile spread across her face.  For the next hour, the two were inseparable.  They raced each other across the pool, Ben on his kickboard, and her close to his side, to see who would get the “trophy” for finishing first.  “Ben, watch this!  Watch this!” her little voice would insist time and again until he was compelled to look as she performed yet another impressive feat.  She would not let him wander off into his own world.  She stayed right with him, joining in his imaginative play at every turn, and they both clearly enjoyed every second.  Ben laughed as she taught him how to make waves with his arms and to squirt water into the air.  Ben suggested that she “do a show” and then perched on the pool's edge, pretending to munch on popcorn, while she did more tricks.  When she was done, he would burst in applause.  She taught him to float on his back and I wondered in my mind why I was getting ready to pay big bucks for private swim lessons when he would probably make more progress just to impress this girl.
            Suddenly, she spontaneously gave him a hug and Ben turned to me and said, “I love her!”  Now, you’ve got to understand that Ben says he loves everything and everyone, which includes people he’s never even met in real life.  One time he asked me to read the name on a student’s worksheet in my classroom after school and Ben immediately said, “I love ‘em!”  I didn’t think the little girl had heard Ben’s love proclamation and they kept playing.  Suddenly she stopped and asked Ben, “Do you love me?”  
           I told her, “Ben loves everyone as a friend.”   
           “But do you love me as a girlfriend?” she pressed him.  
           “Oh, Ben’s too young to have a girlfriend!” I insisted quickly, surprised at this turn in the conversation.  
           “I’m older than him so it’s okay,” she said confidently.   "I'm six, you know.  I'm almost in first grade."  
            A little later, it was time for us to go home.  The mom and I agreed to try to meet up again another evening.  As we toweled off, the girl came over and gave Ben several more hugs.  As we were walking out the gate, she yelled, “I live at number 6031*.  Come over any time!”  As we walked to the car her voice carried across the parking lot, “Bye, Ben!  Byeeee!” 

Today is a great reminder of so many things.  In the midst of all of Ben’s therapies and private sessions, this little girl showed me that some of Ben’s best teachers will come to him in moments when we won’t even be expecting lessons at all.  And, I have a sneaking suspicion that the lessons he remembers the most will come from teachers like her. 


  1. So true. As a classroom teacher with students like Ben, and a grandmother of a kindred child, I have seen such "lessons" happen over and over. Some kids seem to have a natural gift to meet others where they are.

    1. So true! I have seen children who are naturally kindred spirits and it's almost magical to watch kids "click". We looked for her today at the pool but sadly she was not there.

  2. Update on Ben's swimming friend. We saw her at the pool again today. She brought real popcorn to share and they sat in pool chairs, munching happily and speaking Minionese (the Minion language from the movie Despicable Me).


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