A friend, indeed

When Jewel went to kindergarten, I was especially worried about the social aspects and her making friends, much more so than the academics. She was coming from a small “blended” preschool program in which six of the 12 kids were autistic like her, and going into a class of 30-plus general ed students with support.

I was overjoyed when she came home that first day of kindergarten talking nonstop about her new friend “Kendra” and how well they got along. She said they “talked and talked,” about their homes and families and what they liked to do. Over the next weeks I got daily updates from Jewel about her conversations with Kendra and how they were bonding.

At a status conference with the kindergarten teacher more than a month into the school year, I mentioned how thrilled I was that Jewel had found a friend such as Kendra. The teacher looked at me a little quizzically and said, “Oh, that’s nice. You know Kendra is selective mute, right? So I’m glad Jewel can feel the bond despite the fact Kendra doesn’t talk.”

No, I didn’t know Kendra didn’t talk, because Jewel had been repeating their “conversations” to me verbatim. It was then I realized Jewel had found the perfect friend on the very first day of kindergarten … someone who would let her ongoing monologues become dialogues, with Jewel providing the entire script. Always hyperverbal, Jewel found a friend who would let her be her special self in that new environment. It was fascinating, once I got over my shock at the altered reality my then-5-year-old had been presenting to me.

There have been playdates and sleepovers for Jewel with girls over the years, and giggles and shopping trips and trips to the science center and amusement parks. They take place at our house or with me planning and in attendance. There have been very few party invitations, but I am grateful for the ones Jewel has received.

It takes a special kid with an open heart to take the time to get to know Jewel, and see beyond her emotional regulation issues and fast speech, which makes her difficult to understand, especially when she is excited.

This brings me to “Cassie.” On the face of it, Cassie and Jewel don’t have that much in common. Cassie plays soccer, doesn’t have a ton of interest in fashion as Jewel does, and is much more up to date when it comes to choices in music and apps and movies.

But dear Cassie has been a friend, a true friend, to Jewel for a couple of years now, and I couldn’t be more grateful that their paths crossed and they are in each other’s lives. I never take for granted watching them together and overhearing them fall into easy, flowing conversation. Cassie deserves a ton of praise for being such an open-hearted soul, and her parents have my deepest gratitude for raising such a special girl.

Some people actually have the extreme view that autistics can’t make friends. That is ludicrous. Yes, there are times Jewel doesn’t want to be social and wants to regroup on her own. And I would say many of her acquaintances don’t know how to relate to her completely. However, she has extensive social skills training through school and at-home therapies, something neurotypical kids learn naturally but don’t “study” as she has had to. She has language and knowledge of social interactions that works to her advantage, if she works hard at it.

A study this year by the British Psychology Society suggests autistic girls are more socially motivated and have more intimate friendships than autistic boys; researchers say this distinction might contribute to the difficulties in detecting autism in girls in general. There is a huge disparity in diagnosis between girls and boys: the Centers for Disease Control’s most recent statistics estimate autism spectrum disorder is about 4.5 times more common among boys (1 in 42) than among girls (1 in 189) in the U.S.

The British study does draw one distinction between girls such as Jewel and her neurotypical peers: it suggests autistic girls are not as good as girls without autism at recognizing conflict in their friendships.

Jewel regularly reads into and misinterprets meaning when it comes to her interactions with acquaintances, especially new ones. However, with time and attention and nurturing, a really good understanding and heartfelt affection has grown between Jewel and Cassie. As the friendship has progressed, Cassie has gotten more comfortable in letting Jewel know what she needs and wants as they go about their activities, and Jewel has learned to be more flexible.

Jewel says of Cassie: “She’s just really chill, and I like that.” This might be my favorite part of this friendship: Jewel needs to learn what’s a big deal and what’s not such a big deal. To be around Cassie’s calm, happy and positive nature, and talk out such things with her, helps Jewel with much needed perspective, much more than anything I can say or therapies can teach.

Jewel also sees Cassie taking things in stride. For example, the three of us were about 10 minutes into exploring a museum it took 45 minutes to drive to, when Jewel said she didn’t feel well and wanted to go home. We had planned to take the Metro Rail to a holiday event in downtown afterward, and Cassie had been excited about the whole day of activities and new experiences. However,  she just shrugged it off when we called an abrupt end to the plans and headed home. How chill is that? In a world full of tween drama, Cassie’s simple calm is just what Jewel needs.

When you find someone genuinely kind and compassionate in your life, hold on to them and appreciate them. And if you are the genuinely kind and compassionate one, the one who sees past differences and struggles in others and just simply cares, know that you are deeply admired and not taken for granted. You give me hope for the future.

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