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 gets 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 my reasoning.  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 one 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.


I sent his aides a quick e-mail.  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 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 name he knows.


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 as I do.  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.  Just because my son has autism, it doesn’t mean he can’t make friends for the same reasons that the rest of us do.


So his invitations went out to his friends.  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 their friend too.