Thursday, March 17, 2011

Find Out Who Your Friends Are


It’s the word that everyone uses when talking about their special needs child.  It’s supposed to be the Holy Grail of educating our kids.  We want them to be with their typically developing peers as much as possible – to learn from them and to not feel so separated from all the kids their own age. 

But sometimes, inclusion doesn’t mean including everyone.

I’ve been planning my son’s fifth birthday party for a while.  Well, he’s been planning it.  This is the first birthday that he actually understands what birthdays are all about, and he’s been looking forward to having a party at a local play space.  He’s been talking about it for months. 

The party is finally this weekend.

In planning for the party, my initial instinct was to invite his entire preschool class.  He’s in an inclusion classroom with 17 other children.  He’s one of three kids in the class with his own one-on-one aide.  This was his first real birthday party, and I thought it would be nice to invite everyone.  In the true meaning of the word inclusion.  As in not excluding anyone.  As many of the other children had already done with my son. 

I was going to make a statement.  You may not include my son in your parties, but I’m going to include your child.  So there.

I called the play space and spoke with the owner.  I was quite open with her about my son’s autism, and I told her of my plan to invite the whole class and why.  She told me her own heartbreaking story about her daughter being the only one in the class not invited to a classmate’s party, and her daughter knew she was the left out because invitations were put in every other child’s cubby.  After getting teary, I was more convinced than ever that I was doing the right thing.  I told her we were potentially looking at 25+ kids (including siblings and family) and 20 or more parents.  She paused and we discussed the size of the crowd.  And the price. 

Slowly, I began to think it all through.

Later that day, I grabbed a friend outside of the preschool and told her about my party plan.  As the words came tumbling out of my mouth, I realized that I was sounding a bit crazy.  All those kids.  All those parents.  And my easily overwhelmed child with sensory processing disorder.  My friend gently suggested that I talk with the teachers at the school to see what they thought.  Maybe they’d have a suggested list of kids to invite, instead of the whole class.  Some way to keep the sensory overload to a minimum.

I sent his aides a quick e-mail asking just that.  I got back this: “He really just seeks out G. and C. for play....would you like us to give you some ‘recommended’ guests?  We are sending home a copy of the class list in his binder, and we can indicate some names for you if you like.”

G. and C. are the two other kids with aides in the classroom.  All this time, I thought he had so many friends in the classroom.  Every day in his communication log, it says he played with this little girl or this boy.  I thought they were spontaneous interactions.  Turns out, they are structured directed social play opportunities. 

It hit me like a ton of bricks.  I was expecting to shorten a list for his party.  Not add to it.

I shared my sadness with a bunch of other autism moms.  And their response:  Dude.  Your kid HAS friends!  TWO of them.  I would love for my child to have just one connection like that.

Hello, wake up call.

Instead of feeling sad that my son only had two school friends, I should be rejoicing.  That social connection is so hard for kids like mine.  And I shouldn’t have been surprised that he’s friends with those two boys.  They are a lot like him.  They share similar interests and have the same personality.  My son calls them “the silly boys”.  They are the only kids he talks about from school.  They are the only ones whose names he knows.  That should have been my first clue.

Aren’t we all drawn to the people who are most like us?  My friends share the same interests as I do and have the same outlook on life.  We may have been brought together by some other circumstance (same dorm room, shared major in college, kids in the same classes, or kids with special needs), but we click as friends because we are alike. 

My friends reminded me that having two special meaningful connections is better than none at all.

The invitations went out to the silly boys and a few other kids and cousins.  The kids he wants to play with at his birthday, not the kids I thought should be at his birthday.

And they are all coming.  Because he is included in their list of friends too.

"You find out who your friends are
Somebody's gonna drop everything
Run out and crank up their car
Hit the gas, get there fast
Never stop to think 'what's in it for me?' or 'it's way too far'
They just show on up with their big old heart
You find out who your friends are
" - Find Out Who Your Friends Are by Tracy Lawrence

Alysia Butler is a stay at home mom to three boys, one of whom has autism spectrum disorder.  She writes about that and other things at Try Defying Gravity and tweets about her amazing son's birthday at @trydefyinggrav


  1. This was beautiful and you are so right...we DO surround ourselves with like-minded friends. Happy Birthday to your sweet boy. My son Noah turns 6 on Monday!

  2. Happy Birthday to Noah!! Thank you Sunday :)

  3. Any kid would be lucky to get an invitation from your little guy. You're friends are completely right, better to have two close and meaningful than two dozen superficial. Happy Birthday.

  4. Alysia,you worked through this perfectly! Your son will enjoy himself much more and so will you. His stress level will be kept under control and yours will be too. And yes, so many of our kids do not even have one friend, so your son is doing a fabulous job. Research shows that having just one friend can prevent a child from having mental health issues and being bullied.Yeah for your son!!

  5. Good post, I remember the birthday invites in school, it could be horrible. Happy Birthday to your son!
    "A real friend is one who walks in when the rest of the world walks out."~ Walter Winchell

  6. I made the mistake you almost made inviting the entire class. Parents RSVP'd they were coming and then did not show up. My ASD son had great time but instead of 25 we had 6 of his true friends. I lost faith in people for awhile. Quality is much more important than quantity! I hope your son has a great party!

  7. I'm with your friend - envious that your son has two friends. Jake still has none. None. And he wants them so desperately. Since he's a twin, his birthday parties are always double with his brother, and no one really notices none of the kids there are his friends. But I do, always. Sigh.
    I am so glad your son will have a lovely birthday party with true friends. That is priceless.

  8. My son will be 5 in July and I am already anxious about this. Hearing how you handled it really helped and made sense to me. I think having 2 real friends is a gift and I hope he has a great party!

  9. I love this. It is definitely quality of friends that count, not quantity. I hope it is wonderful.

  10. I have the feeling this will all be for the best. My parents did one of those invite the whole class parties for me once. I'm sure it was a bunch of hassle for them, and I don't have any fond memories of it. I do have some nice memories of birthdays spent with favorite friends doing things we enjoyed doing. That felt special. I think it's great your little guy has two such good friends. I hope it all goes well for you.

  11. Thank you! I'll let you all know how it goes tomorrow.

  12. Alysia, You are amazing. I am still all about quality vs quantity in my choice of friends. :)

  13. My philosophy on birthday parties was always to keep them as low key as possible until requested to do otherwise. In other words, we had family over and that was it until the kids started asking for friends. So you're way ahead of where we were at 5 if he actually WANTED specific kids to come! Really great sign.:)