Friday, April 3, 2015

Day 3: Acceptance is Friendship:

"I get by with a little help from my friends." -The Beatles
Making friends can be tricky, especially for those who have difficulty with social interactions. 

An "expert" in the field once told me that Ben doesn’t understand what it means to be a friend because he doesn’t interact in typical ways. 

I disagreed. 

I was told to encourage Ben’s friendships with typically developing peers and not with those on the autism spectrum, because typically developing peers would be better role models and those on the spectrum would reinforce behaviors that were not "socially appropriate".

I ignored this advice.

I knew in my gut that this advice was wrong.  

This person looked at my son and saw limitations.  

I looked and saw possibilities.

It took me awhile to get to the place where I trusted what my heart was telling me to be true.

It hasn’t always been easy. 

Last year I wrote a story on this blog about one of the first moments when I truly knew that Ben was autistic.  You can find it here.  On that day two years ago, I parked my car in the parking lot and watched Ben’s preschool class interacting on the playground.  All of the other children were laughing, running, and playing together.  They were weaving in and out of playground equipment, playing games of tag and chase.  When I finally spotted my son, I saw him slowly walking the perimeter of the playground, trailing his hand along the fence.  No one else was around him.  He was clearly lost in his own thoughts.  I watched him circle the length of the playground over and over again.  He was all alone.  It was as if an invisible wall separated him from the others.

Today, Ben is six years old and is in kindergarten.  He is in an inclusion classroom that is comprised of children with and without disabilities.

And he has friends.

He has friends who are autistic and friends who are not.

Ben's best friend is on the autism spectrum.  Their friendship is a special one because they understand each other in a unique way.   

He has another close friend who happens to be a girl.  She is a bright, smart "typically developing" kindergartener.  She may be a good "role model," but I can guarantee that this is not why she chooses to be his friend.  

I learn so much about acceptance by watching Ben play with his friends. 

There are no false pretenses and no judgments. 

They accept and value the person who he is.  

They enjoy playing with him and spending time with him. 

Ben talks about his friends often. 

He asks to send pictures to them of things he knows they will like.  His best friend is in England on Spring Break and he saw a picture of him next to the soldiers, so Ben insisted on taking a picture of himself next to his toy castle, standing straight and tall like a soldier.

And he’s learning lessons of kindness, generosity, and trust through their example.  

And they are learning from him.

Two years ago, Ben wandered the playground alone.

Fast forward to this year.  

It’s Spring Break and we’re meeting Ben’s friend for a play date at the local playground.  I park the car, and Ben's whole face lights up when he spots her.  "Hurry, Ben!" she calls, impatient to get the fun started.  Once the playground is in sight, they race off together.  I watch as they climb into a two person swing and laugh with glee as they figure out how to work it together.  “Come on, Ben!  Watch this, Ben!” his friend calls over and over again, and they run off to a massive climbing structure that leads to a huge slide.  One shoots out through the tunnel at the bottom and then the other zooms out directly behind, and off they race again.  

Gone is the little boy who wandered the edge of the playground.  

Gone is the invisible wall separating him from others.   

Ben is clearly happy in the company of his friends, but he is still Ben.

He still enjoys his space and his quiet time.  

He still loses himself in his thoughts and his world of imagination.  

His friends understand this.  

They give him his space when he needs it or they join his imaginary world and become characters from his imagination.   

True friendship doesn't come from a place of pity nor obligation.  

It’s not a community service project that someone fulfills to feel like a better person.  

It does not put one person in a position of power over another.  

Friends do not try to change one another into someone who they are not.  

True friendships are genuine, without pretense.  

And so it is Ben and his friends.  

Children, in their innocence, are quick to accept one another as they are, as long as the adults surrounding them create a community of inclusion, tolerance, and acceptance.  

And, because there should be no conversation about Ben without including him, here are Ben’s reasons why he likes his friends, shared here with his permission.  As the Autistic Self Advocacy Network says, "Nothing about us, without us!"

“Nikki is my friend because he does cars with me.  I like cars.”
"Emily is my friend because she plays with me all the times.  Playing makes a good friend.”
“Harry is my friend because I love him a lot and he plays Legos with me.”
“Friends make me feel happy.  The End.”

My hope is that his friendships will continue to grow as he grows.

I know the road ahead will not always be an easy one.

But the road is a little smoother when we are surrounded by friends who accept us for who we are.

**Edited 2 years later**
Recently Ben talked about one of his friends from this article, the little girl named "Emily" whom he hasn't seen since kindergarten. He told me, "She is the one who taught me to be an artist. She is the one who encouraged me and showed me how to color in the lines." That year, she made pictures for him that came home in his backpack nearly every day. Now, years later, he is making pictures for her.

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