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To the Friend Who's 'Moved On' From My Child With Autism

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We’ve all been there. We’ve all felt it. We’ve been the one left behind, and we’ve been the one who has moved on. It happens in childhood and adulthood. It often happens without cause, without blame. It just happens. Circumstances change, times change, people change. It’s hard, it hurts, but we learn from it and we grow. But no matter what we learn or how much we grow, in that moment, no matter if you are the one walking away or the one watching someone go, moving on can hurt.

A lot of times we see it coming but choose to look away. It is a slow, barely discernable shift. The invites stop coming. The time between phone calls or get-togethers becomes longer. There are new faces, new names, new friends on social media, in the bus seat, at the lunch table. As parents who have lived through moving-on moments, we see the signs, we can tell the change is coming, but somehow, when it’s your kid, you want to ignore the signs, unsure of where the signs will point your child next.

It’s one thing when it’s your heart — it’s a whole new ball game when it’s your kid’s heart.

I saw it coming over this past year, and even though my heart always knew the moment would come, I was still amazed at how much the words took me by surprise. “So, do you still sit with so and so at lunch every day?” I asked while making conversation waiting for the bus. “Not too much anymore, he’s moved on,” my son Ryan said nonchalantly. “Wap!” That was the sound of those signs I tried so hard to ignore smacking me right in the face. Like I said, the signs were there, but I pretended not to see them. My friend Denial had been stopping by again for wine, but as soon as Ryan said the words “move on,” Denial jumped out of the car and boarded the bus with Ryan, and I was left alone to process those words and what they meant.

When your child has autism, when making friends is hard, having a friend, the friend, move on is hard… at least for the parent who watches the friend go. I’m not saying Ryan doesn’t care his friend has “moved on” (just an aside, I was shocked he used the phrase “move on” in the first place); I’m saying he doesn’t talk about it. With the exception of the words, “he’s moved on,” I have no idea how Ryan is feeling. However, I do know how hard it was for him to get here, to have a friend and to be a friend.

For a long time, the word “friend” was known as “The F Word” to me, and yeah, it was as derogatory as that other F-word that rhymes with truck. Most of the negative connotation with the word “friend” was my problem, not Ryan’s. So when the friend came along and stopped, I was elated.

So now that the friend has “moved on,” I may not know how Ryan feels, but I certainly know how I feel, and it’s a mix of sadness and gratitude — but mostly gratitude. Just like a neurotypical kid having a friend moves on, as a parent, I can’t make the friend stay, but I can make sure the friend knows how glad I am he stopped on his way.

So to the friend who has moved on, my first and most meaningful words that I hope you will take with you as you go, are thank you. Thank you for taking the time to stop when many kept going. Thank you for seeing him when others did not. Thank you for trying when others gave up. Thank you for being his friend for years when others moved on immediately.

I knew the time would come when things like Mario and Minecraft would not hold your attention the way it continues to hold his. I knew things like hanging out with friends, going to parties, making new friends, trying new things and maybe even (gulp) girls would supersede Mario taking out Bowser in level 10 of Super Smash Brothers. I knew one day you would want more from a friend than he is able to give. I knew you would move on. I get it, and I’m happy for you. Really, genuinely happy for you.

I’m also happy for Ryan. You stayed long enough to show him what it’s like to have a friend. I’m happy Ryan learned to try and put others first. I’m happy he learned to celebrate your victory rather than cry over his defeat. Whether it was on the mini golf course or on the Wii, Ryan learned to be happy for a friend. I’m happy that after years of not having a friend, Ryan learned what he had been missing, and he learned that from you.

I hope that you learned a little from him, too. Like how to understand and accept people who don’t always fit the mold of everyone else at the lunch table. How to be friends with someone who does not “share personal information,” and how to destroy multiple zombies with your eyes closed on Minecraft.

Eleanor Roosevelt said, “Many people will walk in and out of your life, but only true friends will leave footprints in your heart.” I believe there will always be footprints in each of your hearts representing a time where you and Ryan both stood together. And although you may have “moved on,” you are always welcome to bring your footprints back up our sidewalk where you will find a friend happy to see you again waiting with a can of Pringles in one hand and a Wii controller in the other.

And if that moment doesn’t arise, I want to wish you well and thank you for preparing him for the next friend who will one day leave footprints on our sidewalk and in his heart. Ryan will eventually let that friend in, because I believe you showed him how to open the door.

Follow this journey on The AWEnesty of Autism.

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Originally published: December 5, 2015
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