She can make friends with anybody, on or off the autism spectrum, with no concerns for age, race, gender, or skill level. A trip to the zoo where she doesn’t either meet a new friend or bump into an old one is a tragic day indeed. She has a good sense of caution, and I’ve never felt like she was throwing herself into a dangerous situation with strangers, but she’s just so friendly that others find her irresistible.
We’re travelling today, and she’s gone and done it again. We walked into a restaurant and within five minutes, she had a new best friend. Where Caroline’s Asperger’s is hard to identify, even to parents with a child on the autism spectrum, her new friend was clearly somewhere on that spectrum. One eye wandered, the girl’s words were hard to understand, and she flapped madly. I suspect there was gross motor dyspraxia, as well, because she was uncomfortable climbing in the play area, even with help from Caroline.
She was as thrilled to meet Caroline as Caroline was to meet her. But where Caroline bombarded her with introductory information, the primary word this girl’s vocabulary was “Ayeeeek!” It’s a word Sam unfurls a lot when he’s headed for sensory overload. However, she used it in a very happy way. At a guess, I’d say this girl was six,or seven but that was largely because she had a brother in his early teens with the telltale fuzz of early adolescence above his lip, and I heard their mother chastising him “she’s half your age!”
I got the sense that this girl would like to be as friend-filled as Caroline, but the love she is obviously pouring out to the world may not always reach its intended targets. Her parents seemed eager for her to play with Caroline, even though Caroline had basically invited herself over to their table in the middle of their meal, and the little girl left her food unfinished (was permitted and encouraged to do so) to go off with my kids. Then, all three of them, Sam and the two girls, ran around the fishbowl that was the Chik-Fil-a play area, Sam and the new friend squealing while Caroline laughed.
And then Caroline headed up to the slide.
Immediately, the girl’s happy shrieks turned distressed. All the parents looked. So we all saw when Caroline came back down, took the girl’s hand and led her up. The girl’s mother covered her mouth with her hand really fast and looked away, and I knew Caroline had just pushed her friend to some new threshold. It wasn’t that long ago that proprioceptive distress kept Caroline from climbing up restaurant play areas. She has only been really comfortable up there for a couple of years, and I remember the patient months her therapists labored so she could understand where her own body was in space.
Caroline hasn’t forgotten that time in her life, and I think she must have used something from her own experience to convince her friend it was safe to go up. But I have no idea what, and Caroline can’t remember her exact words now, after the fact. I remember clearly that first time Caroline went willingly up those stairs herself, what my heart felt like when those months of therapy came suddenly to a head in McDonald’s. And I recognized myself in that other girl’s parents, just as Caroline recognized herself in their daughter. Although Caroline’s eyes have always gone where she wanted, and her pronunciation has always been strong, these girls clearly had a lot in common.
Because we are travelling, I had to make Caroline come out to eat for a few minutes, but I promised she could go back for a little while if she was quick. As soon as she was gone, the little girl’s father bolted into the playground, climbing up and down the stairs himself, up and down and up and down, his curious child behind him. She never went above the second step. This was clearly an early, early breakthrough. But she followed him over and over, until Caroline came back to play some more.
That alone would be enough. But it wasn’t all. A couple more kids went to the playzone, these girls probably neurotypical. They were willing and happy to bound up the stairs, dive down the slide, and then do it all again, Caroline and Sam shifted their attention. But Caroline did not abandon her first friend. She merely widened her net. Every time she headed up to go to the slide, she poked her head back out, inviting the girl along. And every time Caroline popped out the slide at the other end, the girl shouted “Boo!” and Caroline pretended to fall over with fright, but really laughing so hard that everybody picked up her giggle..
The girl’s father stayed in after Caroline came back, though he retreated to sit on the parent-benches. When he saw the new kids join them, he started trying to gently coax his daughter down, probably trying to end her playtime on a high note before the potential heartbreak of losing a new friend reached her.
But his daughter, entrenched on that second step, refused to move. She sat there, laughing, shrieking “Boo!” and waving at Caroline at every pass. And then the really cool thing happened. After Caroline went four fast rounds up the stairs and down the slide, she added a new component to the game. Everybody stopped on the second step. The new additions had been clearly initially uncomfortable with the first little girl. But when Caroline stopped and grabbed her hands at every pass, the others fell naturally in line, so that at every turn, there was a moment when all four girls (Sam having retreated into his own bizarre little games by then) held flapping hands and shrieked laughter. And it went on for some five minutes.
It was magic, the kind of spell that only Caroline can weave, and it only works because she appreciates no difference between the neurotypical kids and the austistic ones. Caroline knows she has Asperger’s syndrome. We talk about it. And she recognizes some of the differences it introduces to her life. But to her, in social terms, the girls are all different from her. She doesn’t rank the kinds of difference. She finds them all enjoyable and fascinating.
I imagine it this way. Caroline is standing on this bridge overlooking a distant valley. On one side of the bridge is her neurotypical world and on the other is her autistic one. She has equal access to both and only sometimes gets stuck on the autistic side anymore. The rest of us, those of us who really fully exist on only one side or the other of the bridge can all see Caroline up there, looking down into that valley. It’s impossible for us to tell what she sees, but all of us, on and off the autism spectrum, can tell that it’s fascinating. Whatever is going on up on that bridge, we’re interested in it because Caroline is. And so we come out to meet her there, and suddenly we meet each other, and because we are in Caroline’s world, it all makes perfect sense and is wonderful fun.
As I said at the outset, I don’t want to make Caroline into something she’s not. I don’t want to force her into a role. But all of this comes from her. I do not send her out to make friends. I am, in fact, often in the position of having to tell her, “Caroline, you’re with our family today. You need to make friends some other time.”
But I don’t want to stifle this gift either. I want to let her explore and enjoy it and marvel at the people she touches along the way. She may do this forever, or it may fade as she grows up. And if it’s that second thing, I don’t want her to have missed even one friend.
As they were leaving the restaurant, their smiling daughter flapping ahead of them, the child’s mother said, “You have a very sweet little girl,” to us. I couldn’t explain “She’s on the spectrum, too,” because that would show I presumed something about her child when she was so clearly not presuming anything about mine, just enjoying her for who she was. Instead I said, “So do you. I think they had fun together.”
And then we both looked away, because it was very, very hard not to cry.
I’m linking up here with The Lightning and The Lightning Bug’s prompt #33, Common Ground. The post was not written specifically for the prompt, but it matches it exactly without any stretching from me, for once.