And there it is again, another teacher, another specialist saying to me, “I’ve never had a kid like [Jewel] before.”
“She’s so … bold,” said the specialist who runs the program at her middle school for autistic kids. The program is specifically designed for those children who do well in a mainstream educational environment but need social skills support.
Be fearless. Be brave. Be fierce. The statement T-shirts scream these attributes at tween girls. Be bold. But all of a sudden, the concept is being used as something that sets Jewel apart, that could stand in her way.
To set the scene: It’s a little more than a week into Jewel’s first year at middle school, lunchtime recess out on the yard. Jewel is trying to find her footing as kids from four or five elementary schools blend into this mishmash of cliques. Her best friend from her old school buys lunch and so is still in eating after waiting in the long lines. Jewel spots a girl from her classes, one she admires as “stylish and cool and beautiful,” walking in a large group of eight to 10 friends. Jewel, wanting to be this girl’s friend, goes up to the group, on the fringes, hoping to just “blend in,” in her words. But one girl in the group says to another, “Who’s she?” And the girl responds, “That’s [Jewel]. She thinks she’s so special, she just follows people around.” Jewel froze in shock, and then ran away.
Yes, it is a truth universally acknowledged: middle school sucks. Oh wait, Jane Austen didn’t write that last part? There’s a reason why people groan at the words “middle school”: it’s just one long social nightmare for most, to varying degrees, of course. It’s a place in which going up to “stylish and cool and beautiful” girls and their friends without introduction is social suicide. It’s just not done, and most young girls know this social norm innately. Jewel doesn’t; social norms and cues are something extra she has to study, beyond history and math and science.
And, because autism is still much more predominant among boys than girls, the slings and arrows that tween and teen autistic girls specifically face is still relatively unchartered territory for many school specialists.
But there’s something beyond that here that is baffling Jewel. One of my more frequent admonishments to her is, “Have courage and be kind” (which I blatantly and unapologetically stole from the recent “Cinderella” movie). So if I am telling her to have courage, why shouldn’t she go up and try to befriend Ms. Stylish and Cool and Beautiful and her friends?
Ah, the gray areas, the bane of autistics’ existence. Jewel lives in a world of absolutes, in which she always reads the posted rules and has a near-photographic memory from which she will cite any contradictions to what you are currently saying. She absolutely insisted once we could not ride an escalator at an American Girl store because somewhere buried in the posted sign was “no open-toed shoes” and we were wearing flip-flops. We had driven 40 miles to the place, and ended up in the employee elevator so we could see the second floor.
Jewel has mellowed some, and with enough explanation I can get her to see some rules are more “strict” than others. But what about the unwritten rules? The gray areas are even harder to explain. Why DON’T you go up to that group you want to belong to? Why isn’t that showing the courage I always tell her to have? Why is that considered “following” people instead of friendliness? Why aren’t these rules all written out somewhere so she can memorize them? Why does everyone else seem to know them and she doesn’t?
The specialist at Jewel’s school explained that most of “her kids” are shy and hesitant in the face of social situations, either having been burned before or having no interest in such interactions and social dynamics. There are social skills programs that go into great detail about how to approach someone new, call them on the phone or text them, etc. She will be launching such a program in the next several weeks; Jewel is just ahead of the curve and jumped in quickly. Boldly.
So how can I fault Jewel for doing something I encourage? I don’t. I told her that she would be encountering a lot of social norms she would have to learn over the next few years, including letting friendships happen organically, by finding common interests. And that she would find friends and where she belonged. And that she would encounter many more judgmental girls who would offer their opinions of her that she knew weren’t true. And it would hurt. And in the moment, she could say, “That isn’t true, and that isn’t nice.” And she could walk away with her head held high.
I also told her she is far more brave than I am. And she said: “I already knew that, mom. I want to go on way more roller coasters that you do.” And now we’re on to the next lesson, social bravery versus thrill ride bravery. She’s got me beat on both counts.