The Moment That Made Me Stop Pushing My Child With Autism to Make Friends
Our daughter, A., has received special education services — friendship classes, occupational therapy, speech therapy, social skills therapy and adaptive PE, etc. — since kindergarten. But even with all of that work, it seemed our daughter simply didn’t have friends at school. The neighborhood kids would play with her, and her little sister was a devoted playmate, but no friends at school.
Then we were faced with the transition to middle school — three years I feared more than any other. I remember how hard it was for me, a shy girl whose best friend moved away right before junior high. How awful was it going to be for my daughter, who has a nonverbal learning disability? She just didn’t understand all of the subtle body language others use every day.
We always have our IEP meetings at the end of the school year to plan for the coming year. I will never forget when her autism teacher announced at the end of 7th grade, “A. doesn’t need help with social skills anymore. She has them, she just refuses to use them.”
This was a turning point for us as parents.
Until that moment, we pushed her to make friends, talk to people, get involved, etc. I can’t speak for my husband, but I had constant visions of her being bullied by mean girls and struggling each day. I didn’t want her to get depressed or no longer enjoy learning.
At that moment, I realized she might be happy the way she was.
That evening, instead of opening the conversation with, “Did you make any friends today?” I asked her, “Are you happy?”
She quickly responded that yes, she was happy.
I pushed a little harder.
“No honey, I mean are you really happy with your life, even though you don’t have many friends?”
“Mom, I’m fine.”
After that, we stopped pushing her on making friends. It’s more important to us that she’s happy with who she is than that she fulfills some abstract checklist we have in our head of what she “should” be doing and what she “should” be enjoying.
As it turns out, she actually was making friends; she just wasn’t telling us. She had the most popular table at lunch time. Not because she was a popular student or one of the cool kids. Her table was popular with all of the kids who didn’t fit in anywhere else. She welcomed them without judgment or ridicule.
She also discovered anime in middle school. It opened up a whole new world for her with people she’d never met before. Because she shared a common interest, she was able to form friendships online and in the real world. She regularly attends anime conventions with a group of friends she met there. The only thing they have in common is love of anime, and yet they call each other to make plans to get together.
This love of anime led her to discover she loves writing, too. She has written hundreds of short fanfiction stories since middle school. She writes in the universe of her favorite shows and has enjoyed a lot of success. The people who read her stories don’t care about her autism or if she has the right hair or the right clothes. They care about when she will post the next segment of her story.
I guess that teacher was partly right. She does have social skills — she just chooses when to use them.
Lead photo source: Thinkstock Images