When Nico was diagnosed with Autism, one of my first fears was whether or not he would have friends. I had seen my fair share of children and young adults with Autism as an educator and it broke my heart each time when I would walk into the lunch room and see them eating alone or observe them walking the halls by themselves. I’m sure that some of those students were perfectly content sitting alone. They may have even preferred it and I would tell myself that so as to not needlessly bombard them with unnecessary (and probably embarrassing) attention. But, I couldn’t help but wonder what life had in store for these kids. Would they always traverse through life isolated and separate when they had so much to offer in friendship and love?
Friendship is such a vital part of our lives. None of us can survive this life without at least one friend. Like me, Nico has been beyond blessed with so much family and his first and best friends have been his cousins. My first friends were also my cousins and they truly helped define the best parts of my childhood. To this day, they are on speed text and the first ones with whom I share any milestone or challenge. As I journeyed down my educational path, I learned that best friends weren’t just reserved for blood relatives and the friendships I built during those stages of my life helped me through all of life’s ups and downs. Now, many of those friendships I held dear have migrated to social media as life has changed and shifted, but they remain close to my heart because of the impact they had on me in those moments.
Nico is just beginning his journey into friendship building and for the first few years after his diagnosis I truly believed this journey was going to be fleeting because of his special needs and lack of language. The only comfort I found was that his family was where he found friendship and it would always be unconditional. They would always accept him for who he was. Then when we moved from Chicago to Texas I was stricken with fear all over again because we were leaving the only friends Nico knew. I was scared for myself as well because I, too, was going to have to venture out and find a whole new support system and in a whole new state, mind you. Our family had always been our lifeline and our major friend base.
Aside from our familial friendships, my husband and I found ourselves struggling to keep up our other friendships after Nico was diagnosed because we felt like we could not leave our home, with or without Nico. We always looked forward to the prospect of raising our children alongside our friends’ children, but our everyday normal ended up looking very different than that of our friends and we were limited to what we could do. We reached a place in our friendships where apologizing became the norm because we may have RSVP’d yes to a party, but if Nico was struggling that morning or on the verge of a meltdown we knew he would not survive a party. If we had finally mustered up enough energy to go out to dinner or meet up with friends it never failed that Nico would have a treacherous day and it would send us into a tailspin of stress and exhaustion. This would then cause us to have to cancel plans because all we wanted to do was sleep (and secretly cry in the bathroom) instead.
You learn the true meaning of unconditional friendship when you become a parent, especially a special needs parent. The life you lived pre-kids ceases to exist and any friendships that can survive the “early-parenting sabbatical” are the true and lasting ones; they pick up right where they left off (and with lots of libations)! These friendships are golden because you know you can always count on them to be there no matter what. These friendships are empathetic, forgiving, and fiercely overprotective.
Fast forward two and a half years later to our life in Texas and not only have my husband and I found an amazing community of other Autism families, but these families have become our closest friends. We have built unconditional friendships with these parents. We all “get it” when one of our kids is having a meltdown and a party cancellation must follow. We’re there for each other to celebrate the milestones and there to hold each other for the regressions and plateaus. There is never a worry about anyone showing up to a birthday party because we always show up for each other. I have been forever grateful for the friendships I have forged with these families; it makes me feel so much less alone. Being a special needs parent can be very lonely and isolating if you don’t find others that can relate to what you are going through on the daily.
If you are in need of support, turn to social media. There are so many support groups for Autism. You would be surprised at how powerful a friendship can be even if it’s a virtual one. These sites will provide wonderful supports and resources, as well as reassure you that you are not alone:
Having these new friendships has really helped because we have now transitioned into a new world of friendship building with Nico as he has entered elementary school. I was beyond petrified at the beginning of the year that he would stick out like a sore thumb and possibly make zero friends. My vision of having a cool school mom crew to hang out with on the weekends had long dissipated and all I was concerned about was whether or not Nico would find a friend who thought he was as awesome, funny, and sweet as his mom and dad did.
Well, Nico hasn’t just forged one friendship in his Kindergarten class…he has forged several! The students in Nico’s class have demonstrated the absolutely indelible power of friendship. Nico may not be able to tell me their names or share with me all that they did together in school that day, but I know Nico loves being at school because he wakes up happy everyday, excited to go. I have to believe it’s because he can’t wait to see his friends. And, these children are showing Nico what unconditional friendship looks like daily because Nico is not always funny and sweet. Since Nico is still minimally verbal, there are days where he struggles and wants to hit or throw things out of frustration. Sometimes it is directed at his friends, not because he is being malicious, but because he doesn’t have the words to express his disappointment or disapproval. Most children might get upset if another child became physical with them in any sort of way, but not Nico’s friends. They find ways to empathize with him and know that if Nico is displaying these behaviors he is upset about something. They work to find out what is wrong and how they can help.
Did I mention they are six years old??
This first elementary school year for Nico has brought its fair share of triumphs and challenges. I do worry about Nico falling behind academically because of his special needs, but the one saving grace has truly been the friends he has made. I don’t know if Nico will keep all of these friendships throughout his elementary school years. I pray and hope he will retain many and even make some new ones along the way. But what I do know is this…these friendships Nico has built have restored my faith in the power of unconditional friendship and that it isn’t just reserved for adults. It’s alive and thriving in Kindergarten!