Raising a child with Asperger’s Syndrome, I’ve learned to take nothing for granted and I’ve found myself grateful for experiences which might be commonplace for my friends raising neurotypical kids.
This past weekend, my niece was in town playing in a volleyball tournament at the Dallas Convention Center. Ethan was thrilled to have an excuse to ride the DART (Dallas Area Rapid Transit) Train into downtown. I was excited, but also a little hesitant, because we would be in a new environment with potentially challenging sensory input and no car to “escape” to if things took a turn for the worse.
As it turns out, Ethan did beautifully during our day trip into Dallas and even made a new friend!
We’re very blessed that Ethan is highly verbal, is VERY interested in conversations with others and yearns to make friends with his same age peers. That’s not to say he doesn’t struggle socially; he does. For starters, he has a tendency to be overly-social without regard to personal space and can become rough when he is over-stimulated and/or excited. For this reason, I often play the part of the “angel” on Ethan’s shoulder sending quiet, calm reminders to him: “Remember personal space…”, “No pulling…”, “We don’t touch other people’s faces…”, and “Be gentle…” These are some of the most common phrases I find myself reminding Ethan during social encounters.
So, on Saturday, when we met some family friends of my niece’s, I was at-the-ready from the moment I realized they had a daughter Ethan’s age. Without hesitation, Ethan approached the family with his right hand extended to introduce himself. (Ethan does a great job introducing himself to new people, even if it is a bit formal. Yet, for this eagerness to meet new people and to do it with manners – I am extremely grateful!)
As the adults chatted, Ethan and the little girl became acquainted, too. I could tell that Ethan was enamored with the girl; within roughly 90 seconds of the first introduction, Ethan had his face right in front of her face, shaking his head rapidly back and forth. (This is one of Ethan’s stims and is typically accompanied by confused and questioning looks from the child with which Ethan is interacting.) So, without a second thought, I gently laid my hand on Ethan’s shoulder and calmly said, “Ethan, we don’t get in other people’s faces, remember personal…” but I was interrupted!
Ethan’s new friend kindly and politely, but also firmly shared, “It’s okay; I’m wild, too!”
Since we talk about Asperger’s Syndrome and other Autism Spectrum Disorders in a very open and honesty way in an ongoing fashion, Ethan quickly retorted, “Oh, do you have Asperger’s Syndrome, too?”
The little girl replied, “What?”
Ethan repeated, “Asperger’s Syndrome?”
Still looking at Ethan (not me), she said, “Huh?” Usually at this point in a confusing conversation, a child would look up at me like, “Can you tell me what he means?” But she was invested in Ethan – not me!
Ethan slowly said, “Asperger’s.”
By this time, I could see that the little girl had no idea what he meant, and I interjected with, “Nope, I don’t think so, Ethan!” And looking at both of them, redirected the conversation by asking, “Ethan, have do you know what grade your new friend is in?”
And, I’m pleased to report, that was all it took. They found a lot of common ground to discuss sports, video games, school and within minutes were playing a rambunctious game of tag (running circles around the group of adults). Aside from the over-stimulation I saw on the horizon, I was absolutely elated with this social interaction.
When the match was over and it was time to walk around, we all headed toward the vendors in a large group. I was surprised to see that Ethan’s sweet new friend didn’t hesitate to hold Ethan’s hand when he grabbed it mid-sentence. I have to say, I was completely shocked by this child’s eagerness to play, talk and walk hand-in-hand with Ethan without hesitation. Most kids are hesitant when Ethan gets in their face, gets rowdy playing tag or (God forbid) wants to hold their hand; but not this girl! What a breath of fresh air!
In my new life (life after Autism), it is the “little” things that turn out to be the most surprising blessings. I’m sure you can understand why a new friend’s acceptance (without hesitation) and subsequent hand-holding doesn’t seem quite so “little” to me.
Raising a spunky, exuberant and quirky child with special social needs has enabled me to relish in the beauty of seemingly simple things that many parents take for granted. In this way, I am blessed.
Leigh Attaway Wilcox is a writer and editor for the projectLD family of companies. Leigh is Assistant Editor of the internationally acclaimed AutismSpot.com and her work can be found on many of the pLDNetworks sites. Leigh is the author of ALL BETTER: A Touch-and-Heal Book published by Piggy Toes Press in 2007. Leigh lives in North Texas with her husband and young son who loves reading, LEGOs, Mario Bros. and also happens to live with Asperger's Syndrome, an Autism Spectrum Disorder.