Special Needs, Yes Indeed: Find Your Family’s Tribe
Because I work out of my home, and because many of my non-work activities hinge on my kids’ needs, for better or for worse, a large number of potential adult friends in my life come via my children’s friends. Sometimes this works, and sometimes it doesn’t. There’s acquaintance-friends I know through my daughter’s school or my son’s homeschooling group, there’s quick-pretend-to-be-on-the-phone folks I maybe try to avoid encountering at some activity or another, and then there’s the happy accidents of warm, wonderful humans I never would have met if not for my children’s friendships with their children.
My daughter has a friend, for example, whose mother did a lot of virtual hand-holding with me last year when my daughter was hospitalized. We’d been friendly prior to that, but during the rough times she was always there, checking in, asking how things were, and if they could do anything to help. This woman also coached (I assume) her daughter in appropriate empathy to the situation (which was not a given amongst her friends), and she will forever have a special place in my heart for caring for our family through a difficult time. She’s a wonderful woman and I’m grateful to have her in my life.
My son’s best friend is the middle child in a family of three boys, ages 12-15, all with special needs. This is probably enough to nominate their parents for sainthood right off the bat—I cannot think of another family I know meeting so many challenges with continual grace and humor and love—but both parents have become good friends to us over the years, and we joke about my son having become their fourth kid (whether they want him or not). When we were spending so much time last year going back and forth to the out-of-town hospital where my daughter was, my son practically lived at their house, and most of the time when we returned to get him, he didn’t want to leave.
This past weekend we four parents took our four boys camping, together, on our first joint trip. My husband joked that for the first time we’d enabled a man-to-man defense rather than a zone one, as it’s much more common for three or four of the boys to be at one house or the other. I’m not going to lie, it was loud. Awesome, but loud. My son sometimes refers to himself and two of the three brothers as the “Three Aspie-teers,” which always makes me laugh. (Inside joke: What’s better than one Aspie? Answer: Your answer is invalid. Why is it so loud in here? Please pass the Excedrin.) All four boys have certain… quirks and foibles, let’s say… and in addition to their general rambunctiousness and persnicketiness, it was fascinating to watch them work out their individual needs while grouped together in a small space for an extended time period.
While there are other adults in all of our boys’ lives who tolerate and/or care about them, one afternoon as we watched them creating some elaborate game together, the other mom and I were marveling about the comfort and ease in having another set of parents who get them. It’s reassuring for us adults, of course, because we want that acceptance for our all our kids (maybe especially our “different” ones), but I believe the effect on the boys themselves is amazing, too. My son is more himself with this other family than I see him in any other setting. He’s less anxious and happier. He views his friends’ parents as a second set of parents rather than adults who might not understand him. Our friends’ boys seem to have a similar acceptance with us. I never have to explain that my son might freak out over some small injustice and require a cool-down period and we do our best to remember that one of their sons eats fruits but not veggies and the other does veggies but not fruits. No explanations were needed for the frequent juxtapositions between overly-adult moments of behavior and ones where they behaved like much younger children. The boys were all themselves, no apologies needed.
The last night we camped, as the sun set, we moms plunked ourselves down on the ground to play Pig Pile with three of the boys. (If you’ve never played this one, it’s basically an Uno-like card game, slightly more complicated, but pig-themed and where each hand you stand to win some little plastic pigs as a method of keeping score.) Game play was fast and furious, by which I mean that there was much whooping and hollering and I kept forgetting the rules and the boys kept laughing at me. At one point my son curled up next to me and put his head in my lap. Although still a little small for his age, he’s well on his way to 14, and a little large (and “too old” by society’s standards) for this maneuver. “Are you trying to get back into the womb?” I joked, ruffling his hair.
“Yes!” he responded, delighted, curling himself up even tighter, and head-butting my stomach. Ow. His friends shrieked with laughter. The other mom and I exchanged giggles and head-shakes. What would’ve been weird and “inappropriate” in another setting was simply business as usual for us with our boys. No judgment, either of my kid or my parenting. This is just the way life goes with this group, and we’re all okay with it.
“Whatever, Fetus-Boy,” I told him. “Your turn.” I called him Fetus-Boy for the rest of the game. Every time I did, all three boys burst out laughing.
Once I ended up with a small pile of plastic pigs (beginner’s luck!), I started rearranging them in various ways to try to amuse the boys. “Look,” I said, stacking them up, “it’s a power! That’s a tower, but with pigs.” Later: “It’s a pircle! That’s a circle, but with pigs.” And: “It’s a pigtangle! That’s—”
“Okay, okay, we get it!” said the boys, laughing. “A rectangle but with pigs!” (For some reason my friend suggested I stop after I arranged them in a semi-stacked horde and suggested that I’d created a porgy….)
When it was time to part ways, the brothers begged us to let my son go home with them. We had things to do here at home so we declined, but promised to get together again soon. And we will. I love that my son has these boys as his friends, and I love even more that he brought their parents to us to be our friends, too. Sometimes the universe really does just present you with the people you need in your life. Lucky us!