Why My Seven-year-old Autistic Daughter’s Best Friends Are All Over 35
Today should be a joyous day for us here. There should be balloons and presents and cake and donkey rides or something. But instead, it will be a quiet snoop and poop mission (real infantry term, you can look it up). SGM and I will slide into the school for graduation and slide out, likely with me retreating into the fetal position in the bed of the truck as he takes us down the highway toward home at 80 miles per hour so that the sensory thrills of the ride numb me into a coma.
Let me explain.
It has now been a little over two years since RM began attending her outplacement autism school. The one that took me fourteen months to get her into. They have an amazing typical peer preschool on site, NAEYC-accredited, with staff that is fluent in sign language, art, music, and love. The peers are ages three to five and are hand-picked to be excellent models for autistic friends. In this setting where RM has spent about one-third of her time over the last two years, she has learned critical basic pre-educational skills such as turn-taking, group games, learning to sit for circle time with weather and calendar, following simple group activities, learning about friends and social themes like birthdays, holidays, and family.
Her time there has been priceless.
And filled with joy.
So today is a bitter pill to swallow. My baby loves her friends in preschool. But she is now monstrously larger than they are, and as she is turning seven in a few weeks, one cannot argue that the time to move on has come. I accept that. The school has been fabulous about slowly weaning her time out of the preschool over the last few months, so that it shouldn’t be a recognizable trauma for anyone other than me.
So here we are. As she rode off on her van this morning the chest pains came and the crocodile tears and SGM telling me this is all ok, this is her path right now. And sure, I agree. And I didn’t even punch him. He’s right. And I continue to cling to the God’s honest belief that truly, RM’s very best friends are not the children at the school anyways. That was never the case from the very beginning. RM is in love with her teachers. The DOZENS of adults who love her and care for her and teach her and joke with her and smile with her and talk with her and listen to her every single time she has something to say.
She thrives at this place because it is the grownups that hear her and understand her. Not the typical peers, nor her classmates. She loves this place because she is challenged there, not by communication boundaries, but by academics. She loves this place because she knows well enough that these grownups are going to teach her the correct social cues every time. She doesn’t have to decipher the behaviors of the typical peers there anymore. And for now, just for now, I am ok with that. I have to be.
Here at home RM has her nine-year-old brother who adores her as her best friend. They belly-laugh and play legos and watch silly videos of themselves and belly-laugh some more. They are madly in love with each other. If school doesn’t have the “age-appropriate” peers, well I have the best one at home anyways.
Meanwhile, trust that I aim to correct this situation at the outplacement. There are far too many brilliant options to be considered. There are ways we haven’t yet found to give our kids access to social time with typical peer models, so let’s find them.
Even the “best” can always be “better”.
My hope and dream for all parents is that you truly, deep within your heart believe that those scary sounding letters “I.E.P.” can start to look less daunting. I want you to believe that you have the right, and the power, to build a program that has never been built before. You can build it for your child.
There is no such thing as, “We don’t do that.”