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?

Reluctant Team Player

Has your child ever complained about helping out?

In my house, that would be a rhetorical question. Absolutely. Almost every time.

My son is part of a group that holds fundraisers during the year to fund trips for camping and other activities. One of those fundraisers is selling pumpkins. He and his group help pick the pumpkins, set up the sales stand, the boys and their families help sell them, and then everyone helps take down the pumpkin stand after it’s over. It’s a lot of work, but also a lot of fun.

My youngest son, who is not part of this group, complained when we told him he’d be participating in helping in the different activities we’d be doing as s family — getting pumpkins off the truck (set-up), a selling shift, and helping with clean-up (tear down). He whined. He argued. He did NOT want to do any of these activities. Yet, every single time he got there his mood changed from grumpy to happy pretty quickly. While a reluctant team player, he liked the teamwork and sense of purpose in doing something helpful.

There is something about working together to get something done. Whether it’s part of your job, a group, or volunteering. The feeling of purpose and seeing tangible results can be very satisfying.

Is your child reluctant to help out? How do you get them to see/experience the benefit?

Orientation

How do you identify with your child?

As a parent, I often feel like I’m navigating new territory. The territory isn’t changing quite as rapidly as it did when my children were very young and I was really new at being a parent, but has instead changed to steeper terrain. When my children entered a new phase early in life: rolling over, sitting up, crawling, eating solid foods, walking, etc., the task required me to change with my child’s physically — helping them, allowing them to try, fail and learn from their mistakes, and help them grow. Now I’m navigating areas that have more weight to them — while no physicality is required, it requires much focus on my words, actions and handling.  Gender identify and sexual orientation are areas I knew may need to be discussed with my children, but I don’t have a lot experience with either outside traditional roles.

I wasn’t necessarily a ‘girly-girl’ when I was growing up, but I always felt comfortable being a girl. I can’t recall a time when I was interested in being anything else. Same with sexual orientation. I certainly thought there were other girls that were pretty (wished I looked like or could be them even), but never recall having any romantic feelings for the same sex. It never bothered me when others did. One of my uncles was gay. I loved him. I didn’t realize he had suffered as a gay person until I was much older, but have always remembered that he mattered, he was a good person. and he never deserved anything but being treated as the wonderful man that he was (he passed from HIV when I was 18).

My boys are now in their teens (tweens, to be more precise) at 10 and 12. When one of my sons was younger, he had said he wished he were a girl. I experienced a quick range of emotions. First, denial — he can’t mean what he’s saying, and then second, curiosity — okay, he wishes he were a girl. I need to better understand what he means. Of course, in my mind I prepared myself for him wanting to transition from male to female (yes, I jumped to the extreme pretty quick). “Why do you want to be a girl?” I asked. “Well, because I like a lot of the same things they like,” he responded. “Do you wish you could wear girls clothes, or have the same body parts?” I continued. “No, I like being a boy,” my son said, “I just don’t like sports or rough house stuff. And I feel more comfortable around girls.” It was becoming clearer to me, that my son was concerned he wasn’t fitting into the ‘stereotypical’ male gender role. Thankfully my son has been in schools that have encouraged expression in whatever form that takes for all genders throughout his childhood. I reminded him that it was okay not to like sports or want to rough house, and that, believe it or not, there were a lot of other boys that also didn’t like the same things. “You are realizing who you are and what you like and don’t like, that’s a good thing,” I told him. Still, I feel like there is more I probably should be doing — more checking in with him — does he still have those feelings? Does he like and accept who he is, or does he feel pressure to conform — if so, where and why? It’s a good reminder for me, that many opportunities in parenting to do right by our children reside on us not only showing up, but proactively inquiring.

One son is starting to become more attracted to others. Though he is quick to let everyone know he has no plans to act on it, despite us encouraging him to be open to the idea. During PRIDE week at school, one teacher talked to the students about different sexual orientations — words/labels used to describe various sexual orientations, and encouraged the kids to ask questions. When my son came home, he said, “Mom, I need to tell you something.” The way he said it, I thought he was going to tell me about something that happened at school, or how he’d done on a test. Instead he said, “I think I might be pansexual.” My first thought was stay cool, you can do this. I’ve certainly seen people on TV that claim to be pansexual, but don’t know anyone personally who identifies as such. I wanted to get this right with my son. I wondered if my son was truly sexually attracted to male and female peers, or if he was struggling with normal adolescence exploration. I’m not sure he knew, and I felt horribly unprepared to help him navigate this the best way. I told him, “You father and I don’t care who you love. We love you just the same. It is completely fine to love whomever you choose.” He sighed with relief. I felt I handled it well, but know I need more help.

I’ve been prepared much of my life to help my kids role-play for certain situations — how to handle a disagreement with someone, how to ask for help, how to advocate for yourself, even how to let someone know you like them and/or are interested in them. I struggle with how to encourage my son to explore same-sex interests. I want to be supportive and know we, as a culture, are much more open to these types of relationships, but still fear him being rejected, or worse outcast or harassed by others. I am reminded of my uncle and learning of the pain he experienced at the hands of others for being gay. I want to believe that everyone would be supportive of my son, but know that might not always be the case. I want to protect him, but not limit him or hold him back from exploring his interests.  How do you help your son let another boy know they’re interested when you’re not sure the other boy identifies as gay or pansexual themselves? Anyone who has any experience and insight, please share.

Very much like when my kids were young, I want to help them, allow them to try and fail (even in relationships) and grow. I’m navigating new territory and hope I get it right.

How are you navigating challenging parental terrain? If you have a child who identifies as gay, transgender, pansexual or other, how are you helping them navigate their identify and sexual orientation?