~ Gabriel Garcia Marquez
With A Little Help From Your (New) Friends
The woman is a well-known activist in her autism community. Navigating the holidays with her son with autism takes careful choreography. She dances with the issues of when and how to arrive at a gathering, what to bring (food, fidgets, other sensory-calming tactics), and how far she can let him stray from her side or sight, ever alert for the warning signs that tell her it’s time to intervene, or leave—now. Her friends blow off her vigilance. They tell her she needs to lay down the law, let her son know who’s boss. Just tell him she’s not ready to leave yet and that he has to suck it up and find something to do for another hour.
The woman has dutifully worked many years in the lucrative family business, all the while yearning to follow her calling, to be a special education teacher. It takes years of night school, but she finally gets her certification and is thrilled to be starting her first job, teaching a self-contained class of a half dozen children with various challenges, including autism. Some friends and colleagues are incredulous that she would leave her well-paid former career, and just what does she expect to be able to teach those kids?
The woman’s daughter received an autism diagnosis at age three. In the year since, she’s attended an early intervention preschool and is progressing at a reasonable pace. The child’s grandmother keeps her distance, periodically asking, “When will she be normal?”
The third woman is the one with a real problem. As the cliché tells us, you can choose your friends but you can’t choose your relatives. Grandparents are important threads in the family tapestry, not easily disregarded. Friends, however, are a matter of choice. Friendship is supposed to be a reciprocal relationship based on caring, shared interests and affection. True friends support each other in times of need and applaud each other’s successes, which is why it is easy for me to distill my advice to the activist mom and the brand-new teacher down to a mere five words: Get yourself some new friends.
If that sounds high and mighty, it’s not. Nowhere in the definition of a friend does it say that a friendship is a permanent thing, a lifetime appointment. Friends can be more situational than we may realize. Think about friends from the workplace or neighborhood, friends who are moms of our children’s classmates.
These friendships often fade when physical proximity recedes. They are real friendships in the moment they are happening, but when the commonality is removed, they die peaceful, natural deaths, most of the time leaving pleasant memories.
Friends are part of the wardrobe of our lives. Like a favorite old garment, wrapped around us for long periods, they become familiar and comfortable. Sometimes we fail to see that they are deteriorating, holes developing, seams coming apart, stains that won’t come out. I’m particularly bad about replacing my athletic shoes. I wear mine for years, until they literally disintegrate. Every time I finally buy that new pair, I marvel at how much more buoyant they make me feel. I’m fairly bouncing, filled with new energy. It never fails to amaze me, how I don’t seem to notice that those old shoes had stopped supporting me.
I’m not consigning friendship to equal status with old shoes, but the metaphor is worth some thought. We frequently labor, perhaps subconsciously, under the assumption that all friendships are supposed to be multi-purpose and long-lasting. But that’s not sustainable in real life. Long-standing social relationships with people who have no curiosity about what makes your child with autism tick, and who have no inclination to make even small accommodations to include him and you in their circle are friendships that may require some reconsideration. You don’t have to chuck them, but you do have to be realistic about the circumstances of your life, at any particular time, with your child with autism. You can attempt to educate these friends, yes. Or you can continue to attempt forcing your square-peg child into the round hole of your friends’ attitudes and activities. Or you can continue to enjoy your old friends on a more selective level while you seek out new friends who are in a better position to support your current needs.
Friendships come in all shapes and sizes, but all at some point will hit the speed bumps of the human condition. Consciously or not, we sometimes set up ourselves up for headache and heartache by harboring expectations and assumptions that our friends will not or cannot meet. So often, these expectations, the parameters of the relationship, go uncommunicated. No wonder, then, that disappointment ensues. Simple communication may save some of these friendships. By all means, try. But it’s likely there will be at least a few who will not be able to accept the current constraints of your life. This can be sad, no question. I had to face it many times, and it’s hard to forget the sense of resignation I sometimes felt when I had to redraw or walk away from a friendship.
The idea of putting forth the effort to form new friendships may seem exhausting, scary or both. Your time and energy is already at a premium, and your child or children demand so much of both, and that’s before you start factoring in a job, home, significant other, and . . . oh, dear. Two things worked for me. First, being comfortable with the idea that less is more. I needed a few good friends, not a gang of fun but casual acquaintances. I needed friends who would not badger me if I didn’t communicate for weeks, and who could pick up our friendship wherever it had last left off. And I needed some friends outside the spectrum, so that my life was not All Autism, All the Time. I found the most supportive friends a mom could ask for by reaching out to the people who worked with my son as he made his way through the school system. They already knew and loved him, and were eager to stay in his life after he passed from their hands. Through them, I also found my way to other families in situations similar to ours. I found support for my creative self and my whole self in my twice-monthly knitting group that is now in its twenty-sixth year. And I kept my finger in the wider world by maintaining several long-distance relationships with friends old and new via email, phone and occasional visits. Today, social media has redefined the boundaries of friendship yet again.
How you view the changing tide of the friendships in your life is a matter of perspective. I read so many posts by parents who talk about how their lives have shrunk since their child’s diagnosis of autism. In some ways, this is true. But I also had to reflect, did my world shrink, or did it enlarge? If my extraordinary son didn’t have autism, I wouldn’t have had the opportunity to reach out to others as I have. I lost a few friends locally but now can claim friends all over the world. Every one of them expands my life in ways I never could have imagined.
So here’s your New Year’s resolution: be an opportunist!
Get yourself some new friends.
© 2009, 2013 Ellen Notbohm www.ellennotbohm.com
This column ran originally in Autism Asperger’s Digest, January-February 2009. During 2014, my tenth anniversary year with Digest, I’ll reprise some of my favorite columns.
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©2013 Ellen Notbohm | Third Variation Strategies