That’s What Friends Are For

What makes a good friend?

This question has gotten a lot more attention from me as I’ve navigated the struggles my son on the autism spectrum has with making friends. What does make a good friend? Someone who is kind in the moment? Someone who wants to engage with you in a kind and supportive way? There are varying levels of friendship. I think of the friends who have come in and out of my life. I was reminded what a good friend looks like when a woman I have known for years and who I have shared just about everything with asked me timidly, “When was your son diagnosed?” She asked it in a whispered voice, and did a quick glance to ensure no one around had heard the question. While I was reluctant to talk about my son being on the spectrum when I first found out, I have come a long way — I’m happy to talk about it openly, but I remember that feeling of being unsure and uncomfortable, I was picking up on the way she was asking that she was uncomfortable. I responded, “When he was around five,” I paused and lowered my voice, “What’s going on?” She leaned in and said, “I haven’t really talked about this, but my son has spoken a word yet, and he’s two and a half, and we’re not sure why.” I could almost feel her concern. As a parent, when your child seems to have any affliction — whether it is a disease that is tough to treat, or a condition that makes them different than others — it can feel like you are at a crossroads — the childhood you imagined you and your child having will likely not be how you envisioned it to be, and that can be scary. We decided to find a time we could talk more openly. I wanted her to feel comfortable sharing and asking whatever questions she had.

Prior to us meeting, I thought about how I could best show up for her for this conversation. The truth is we don’t know if her son is on the spectrum, he hasn’t been tested and officially diagnosed, but he does exhibit behaviors similar to my son. I could easily jump to conclusions and give her all the information I’ve gained since my son’s diagnosis, but figured that really wasn’t what she needed. She needed to know that everything was going to be okay. Yes, her parental journey would be altered, but it didn’t mean it couldn’t be joyous, it was just going to be different. She asked me to share my story. I shared and then asked her what she was most concerned about. She was very concerned they hadn’t figured out what was behind her son not talking despite seeing doctors and specialists and enlisting the help of therapists and others. The next step was doing a battery of tests to get her son properly diagnosed. “I’m concerned because I need to figure this out before he turns three,” she shared. “What is special about him turning three?” I asked, thinking about how we hadn’t really enlisted help for our son until five. “That’s when it says you have the best chance of early intervention, but we don’t know what he has.” She admitted to spending too much time on the internet and going into various rabbit holes of information that all seemed to lead to a future life of doom and gloom for her son and her family. As she spoke, I was reminded of my intention coming into this meeting, what would a good friend say? I borrowed a phrase we use with our older son, who is always jumping ahead in his life and concerned about his future. I was seeing the same thing in my friend.

“How long have you been a parent?” I asked. “Well, two years” she said, clearly taken aback by the question. “And how are you supposed to know everything, and have it all figured out in two years?” I said. “Well, I guess, you’re right, there’s no way you can figure it all out in two years.” I finished, “Think of your journey like a video game, each year of your child’s life is a level. Right now, you’re on level 2, stay there, don’t try to be on level 5 or 12 or 35. You’re on 2, you’re going to continue to learn and get smarter. You are going to figure this out.” She smiled. Her shoulders relaxed. “You’re right,” she said. “Thanks.” I did end up giving her a few resources that she could reach out to who could give her some sound advice — these resources had been a Godsend to me. As I left our meeting, I thought, I wish I had had a friend or support like this when my son was first diagnosed. There was support available, but I was just too scared to reach out, and I didn’t have any friends talking. I was glad my friend was brave enough to ask. I was glad I could be that support and encouragement. After all, that’s what friends are for.

Are you struggling with raising your child? What does a good friend do to help support you as a parent?

The Power of You

What makes you or your child unique?

My youngest son and I were discussing the power of self-awareness, advocacy and accepting (even embracing) who you are. Only allow others to treat you how you want to be treated. Don’t think because you have autism that you are any less valuable or that people should treat you any other way than kind and respectful. My son and I talked about the power everyone possesses when they know who they are, and share it with others.

In our world, us neurotypicals (NTs) — not on the autism spectrum — spend much of our life trying to ‘fit it’ in whatever form that takes. Part of what my son benefits from in being on the autism spectrum is that he is unaware of the social norms and pressures peers try to place on each other. He is who he is, and when a peer tries to place a pressure on him, he either ignores it or is confused by it (which typically leads to a discussion at home as to why something happened or why someone acted the way that they did). An example, my son was friends with a girl and liked her for who she was. He wasn’t concerned that she was overweight or that she was a bit ‘louder’ than her peers. He thought she was funny and kind and she seemed very much to like him for him. One of his classmates decided to ‘target’ my son and his friend making a heart shape with his hands and continuing to do so after they had asked him to stop. My son said, “I don’t understand why he was making the heart shape. He acted like I was supposed to be mad about it, but it just really annoyed me. He wouldn’t stop doing it.” I took a guess at what might be going on, “Relationships make many people, particularly us neurotypicals, uncomfortable, and when we see people showing an interest in each other easily, without effort, it can evoke emotions in us — discomfort — either we’re jealous because we like that person and are embarrassed we didn’t act sooner, or we feel pressure to be in a relationship and don’t know how to go about it, or we feel there’s something wrong with who you like and even though that’s that person’s issue they try to put their discomfort on us.” He thought about it for a minute and said, “Well, it still annoyed me.” To which I responded, “Next time, tell them it annoys you. Ask them why they are directing their discomfort at you? I bet anything it will stop them in their tracks, because they likely don’t even realize that’s what they are doing.” This seemed to satisfy my son for the time being.

Being yourself isn’t always easy. Especially when you are young and you get messages from TV, the Internet, movies and peers about how you are ‘supposed’ to act. If you don’t have someone telling you you’re better off just being yourself (and that oh, by the way, most people will find it refreshing and even attractive) you can easily form opinions about how you should act and not be yourself. I’d hate to have that happen to either of my sons, I’m glad my youngest is challenged in being anything other than himself. He’s an inspiration to his brother, my husband and I, his teachers and many of his peers.

How is your child unique? And how are you helping them embrace who they are?

I will be off the next few weeks with Easter and then Spring Break, but will return later in April.

You’re a Good Friend

How many good friends do you have?

My youngest son and I continue to read our new favorite book, The Asperkid’s Secret Book of Social Rules: The Handbook of Not-So-Obvious Social Guidelines for Tweens and Teens with Asperger Syndrome by Jennifer Cooke O’Toole. What I love about this book is how much of this information benefits people on the spectrum and those of us who aren’t.

My son and I are now in the part of the book that is about friendship — what makes a good friend and how to go about cultivating a friendship. As I read the chapter I was struck by how much I would have benefitted from someone telling me this information when I was my son’s age about what makes a good friend. When I was young, I didn’t think about friendships in layers per se, but did understand I had different friends — some were kind, some were kind when they felt like it, some could be trusted, others couldn’t, etc. In the book, it spells out characteristics a good friend has. Some of the basics: Smiles when they see you, likes some of the same things you do, shares some of the same opinions, invites you to hang out. And others that are more advanced and truly define a good friend: stands up for you (even if you’re not there), stops you if you put yourself down, listens, sees talents in you that you hadn’t noticed, likes you for exactly who you are. There are many more characteristics she names, but you get the picture, she is shining a light on what a true and worthwhile friend is.

After reading this I reflected on my own childhood friends. I had some friends that had some of these characteristics, but don’t think I had any ‘true’ friends until I was college-age. As I’ve grown older, I’ve sought out, cared for and worked to develop healthy and meaningful friendships vs. giving equal care and time across all friends regardless to what they bring to the relationship. I wondered how I might have invested my time differently with people earlier in life if I had had this information. I thought what the author said was so valuable I grabbed my older son and said, “I need to read this to you.” He has friends much like I did in middle school — some are nice, some are nice when they feel like, some can be trusted, and others cannot. After reading with both my boys I felt like I had given them a path to know how to spot a good friend and better spend their time with people who will value them and their friendship and reciprocate in kind.

Friendship can be a tricky thing to navigate, especially if you don’t understand what a good friend ‘looks’ like. I’m grateful I’ve had an opportunity to enlighten my kids (and remind myself) about what a good friend truly is.

How are you teaching your child to spot (and make) a good friend?

Getting to Know You

How well do you know your child?

As a parent, I’d like to think I know my kids pretty well, but my assessment was recently put into question. As I’ve shared, my youngest son is on the autism spectrum. After meeting with a specialist, my husband and I were provided with suggested readings to help us better understand Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). There were several books that were recommended, along with a workbook. I ordered all the material in hopes that they would be useful. Some were intended for my son. Some were intended for my husband and I (and my son’s teachers). I wasn’t sure how my son would react when I showed him the material. Would he be upset? Or relieved? Or something else?

When the first couple of books came, I showed them to him. Because my son’s biggest challenge is picking up on social cues, we started with You are a Social Detective! Explaining Social Thinking to Kids by Michelle Garcia Winner and Pamela Crooke. My son and I read through the book. It was very insightful, but I wasn’t sure how much he really was following and retaining. It’s a great reference book that we’ll need to read and re-read to ensure it sinks in. The next book I shared with him was Different Like Me: My Book of Autism Heroes by Jennifer Elder. My son really liked this book. “Wow! Sir Isaac Newton had autism? Albert Einstein?” he said. You could tell he felt that instead of being deficient for being on the spectrum he was in elite company with some of history’s most famous people. Then we came upon Asperger’s…What Does It Mean to Me? A workbook explaining self-awareness and life lessons to the child or youth with high functioning autism or Asperger’s by Catherine Faherty. This book was a godsend. My son and I started reading the workbook together. It walks through different topics explaining how children on the autism spectrum may think, feel or look at situations differently than someone who is not. Then it asks the child to self-assess and answer what is true from them. Talk about getting to know your child. My son started having lightbulb moments–understanding how others without autism may experience something versus how he does–he was gaining clarity around his autism and so were my husband and I. As we read through the workbook together, our son learned more about himself, my husband and I learned more about ASD, and more about our son and how he experiences the world. It was (and is) priceless. Assumptions we had made were dispelled and unknowns were replaced with information about our son. After completing the workbook I believe I understand my son and ASD much better. It was so insightful, we talked to our son and asked if he would be willing to share the workbook with his teachers and staff who work with him so they can better understand him as well. He agreed. “What about grandma and grandpa? Or your aunts and uncles? Can we share it with them?” I asked. “Sure!,” he said. I loved his enthusiasm and willingness to share with those who love and care about him.

We are excited about finding this workbook and the other wonderful material that is helping us better understand our son. There is no greater feeling, in my opinion, then having knowledge to help you navigate life. It’s challenging enough. Having this information feels like blinders have been lifted and we can better take on this new(er) terrain.

How well do you know your child? What material (book, course, etc.) have you come across that has helped you better understand them?