Thursday, January 30, 2020

To the Parents of the Classmates Who Didn't Give Up On My Son This School Year

Dear Parents,


In the daily grind of schedules and snow pants, I’ve neglected to acknowledge my appreciation for you and your family – namely, your sweet, amazing child. 

 Let’s start with you. Before I first dropped my child at your house for a playdate I informed you that my son lives with moderate autism. I hate having this conversation, not because I have any shame surrounding his diagnosis, but because it sounds like I’m giving a warning, when really I’m just highlighting what my son needs to be set up for success with peers, and potential pitfalls I can predict. But if I’m being honest, we didn’t really know each other. We were moms with kids the same age in the same class. We’ve come a long way when it comes to stigma, but the reality is, not everyone is comfortable with special needs. You seemed like a mom I could really get along with, but how could I be sure you wouldn’t have reservations about hosting a child with unique needs, with whom you were unfamiliar? If you had reservations, you didn’t show it. On the contrary, you put my mind at ease, assuring me you’d let me know if any snafus popped up. 

I appreciate your openness, acceptance. Parenting a child with unique needs is often isolating. It can feel a lot like living on an island. Finding someone willing to reach across the water is invaluable. There’s someone else I appreciate. Here’s to your child.

You see, my son transitioned (transition – a four letter word to many on the spectrum) from a special-needs preschool class to a mainstream kindergarten. His IEP team proved amazing, but we were nervous about how he’d relate to his peers. We had the same fears most parents face. Would he make a friend? Would he be lonely at recess? Would he get bullied? I remember relating to Julia Roberts’s character in the movie, Wonder, when she watches he son, Auggie walk into the school building and whispers, “Please God make the kids be nice to him”.

 Our concerns were amplified by E’s social anxiety and difficulty reading social cues and communicating verbally. Selective mutism was suggested, as E spoke to teachers and aides but tended to freeze with peers. This looks like flat affect, and a frozen, staring face. Often, he won’t respond when a peer says “hi” or asks to play. When he sees peers playing together, he wanders around them waiting for them to invite him to play. Despite role play, he struggles to verbalize his desire to be included. My biggest prayer wasn’t about reading or math. I prayed that God would send him a real friend to make his school days more comfortable.

God gave more than I asked. He gave E. your child. When we ask E. who he played with at recess, instead of hanging his head and saying “no one” like he did in the beginning, he mentions your child’s name with a grin. When E. struggles to transition back into the school week after a weekend or longer break, we remind him that he’ll reunite with your child. That helps. Your child gives him something to look forward to, someone to comfort him when he gets homesick.

Your child was okay with taking the lead, which my child needs. Your child not only asked mine to play, but they were undeterred when E. didn’t respond to their invitations and greetings. Instead of (understandably) running off and finding a more receptive playmate your child persisted, somehow recognizing that my son’s companionship was worth the extra effort. Your child kept asking, kept greeting, and kept inviting. 

I remember the ice cream social during the fall of first grade. E. clung to me, overwhelmed by the excited voices bouncing off the cement walls of the cafeteria and the lines of people. To be honest, I was a bit overwhelmed myself, though I didn’t show it. I saw you and your child. We all exchanged greetings. E. was overloaded and didn’t say “hi” to your child, even with prompting. He remained glued to me even when your kids asked him to come outside and play on the playground. E. tugged on me to go with him, but I was in line for his coveted ice cream ticket. Your kids ran outside.

Moments later, they were back. I watched in grateful amazement, as your child amended, “E., do you want to play with us?” to “Come on, E., let’s go play.” I watched your children gently but firmly take my child’s hand and lead him outside. By the time I made it outside the kids were chasing each other and rolling down the hill. E. was sweaty and laughing. He’d forgotten about me, and more amazingly, he’d forgotten about his ice cream melting in my hand. I’ve never been so happy to have sticky vanilla running down my wrist. That night I got to watch my son run and play with friends - no social worker, aide, or parent prompting him – just being a kid. This was possible because of my son’s bravery to venture away from his comfort zone, but the opportunity was offered, no, insisted upon by your children. We all chatted while our kids frolicked, and I got to be just one of the moms. I went home from that ice cream social with high spirits.

Your child is so much more than a playmate. Your child is the friend who encourages my son to raise his hand in class. Your child has made him comfortable asking for sensory and movement breaks, referring to these accommodations as cool privileges. Your child often accompanies mine on these breaks, and while I’m sure they enjoy the break from class too, they engage my child without asking why he’s given these breaks.  

When your child invites mine for playdates, he hesitates, not because he’s not excited to play, but because leaving his familiar environment and predictable afternoon brings its own challenges. Often he asks that your child come to our house instead. He always has fun at your house once he’s there, but your child is just as happy to roll with the punches and play at our home. On one of these playdates, we were having some work done in our basement, and our internet cable was accidentally cut. I was informed it would be two days before it could be repaired. In general, dusty, noisy home repairs and a cut internet cable equals first world inconvenience. For someone on the spectrum, an unexpected change on top of a noisy disruption in their safe environment is a potential recipe for a meltdown. This particular week, my son’s fixation is building a boat in Minecraft with his brother. Per our therapist’s recommendation, he gets this at the end of his day. When you’re looking forward to something and it doesn’t happen, you probably feel disappointed and maybe frustrated. To my child, unexpected disappointment can feel like the end of the world.

But it can look like a bratty temper tantrum to the outside observer. I get it, I do. I’m telling you this because on this day your child witnesses a full-blown screaming, crying, throwing the X-Box remote at the (already cracked) television screen, and falling on the floor. I won’t add a full dissertation on the difference between a tantrum and a meltdown but suffice it to say no seven-year-old CHOOSES to have a meltdown in front of a peer – especially a classmate. But here we were. While attempting to deescalate, I glanced over at your child lingering at the threshold of the family room with a pensive frown on their little face.

In that moment, I froze. I didn’t want your child to be scared, but I didn’t want to embarrass my child further by attempting to explain. Before I could decide how to handle the situation, your child came into the room, walked up to my child, and without missing a beat, said, “E., I’m sorry you don’t get to play Minecraft today. That’s sad.”

My mouth hung open. Without prompting and in the sweetest voice possible, your six-year-old did what I’ve personally witnessed countless educated adults fail to do in these situations – validate feelings and show empathy. Your child didn’t see a kid “too old to be acting like that” being a brat. Your child saw a friend and fellow human upset, and showed understanding without judging whether or not his reaction was too much. My child didn’t respond immediately, but ultimately your child coaxed him out of his fixation and into another activity. 

I’m rambling now, but this event made me think. As an advocate for my child, I feel the need to learn every single fact about autism, therapy, and how to diffuse meltdowns while also raising awareness to other people. I believe those stares and passive aggressive comments (always from adults) in public sprout from simple ignorance rather than cruelty. After all, autism is an invisible disability. However, I doubt your child knows or understands that my child is on the spectrum. They probably haven’t stayed up until 1:00 A.M. reading articles and scouring online support groups. They don’t have any letters after their name (yet). In this moment, none of that was needed. Good old-fashioned human empathy and validation did the trick. What would life be like if we all responded that way? Maybe the opposite of ignorance isn’t knowledge but compassion.

In my long-winded way, I’m circling back to you, parent. Your child learned empathy and compassion from somewhere. They learned inclusion and kindness. They learned that sometimes the most valuable friends are those you have to work a little harder to get to know. Maybe you’ve sat your child down and talked about differences. Maybe in the beginning of the school year you reminded your child to be kind to classmates and look for the kid keeping to themselves at recess. Either way, I can safely assume your child has learned the most from watching you.

            We don’t know each other well, dear parents, but we know our kids watch us even when we think they don’t, and they’re always absorbing like little sponges. When you approached the new, socially anxious mom hiding in plain sight in the farthest corner of the classroom, they were watching. When you offered a kind word to someone having a bad day, they were listening. When you responded with compassion instead of snapping back at the cranky barista, they noticed. So, thank you for modeling acceptance, understanding, and perseverance. Our kids are only in first grade. Chances are they’ll lose touch over the years. But your child will always be the reason my child didn’t play alone in first grade. Your child will always be the reason my child didn’t have to feel different. Chances are my child will remember these friendships and sense of belonging well into adulthood. I’m not saying this to be cheesy. As an adult, I can name every bully, but I can also describe in detail every classmate who showed kindness. 

Through their persistence, your child gained an invaluable friend. E. is the most loyal person you’ll meet. E. is a fun, silly, imaginative, and complaint playmate. Your child took the time to learn this. Thank you for sharing your child’s pure heart with our family.


With love,

A Fellow First-Grade Mom