Two years ago, I wrote my only post ever titled in all-caps: “MARTIN MADE FRIENDS.” I described how Martin finally managed to make friends in a scenario not arranged by adults: He rode his bicycle across the street to play with the twin girls who live there. I also admitted that the friend-making appeared limited to the specific situation—the same week, Martin bombed a play date and failed to speak to another neighbor girl. I predicted that making friends might be one of those skills that pops up, disappears, and then reemerges to stay.
The friendship with our twin neighbors faded, once other kids got involved. That fall, Martin transferred to the same school as those girls, and they joined the school-bus bullying fiasco. Martin tried sometimes to make friends at recess, but his classmates rejected him, and we were left with only playmates from his social-skills group and former special-education school.
Twenty-four (long) months later, fledgling friend-making is back. A month or two ago, as Martin and I were walking to the car at afternoon school pick-up, a boy ran up and said, “’Bye, Martin! See you tomorrow.” Martin replied, evenly, “’Bye, Manuel.”
“Martin,” I asked in the car, “who was that boy?”
“That’s my friend Manuel. He just moved here from Texas.”
“Is he in your class?”
“No, I met him at recess.” Martin said this matter-of-factly, as if he were constantly making new friends on the playground.
I asked Martin whether he’d like to invite Manuel for a play date. He replied that he would.
The next afternoon, I introduced myself to Manuel’s grandmother, who picks him up from school because his mother works. The grandmother said, “Oh, you’re Martin’s mom! Manuel talks about Martin. Let’s get them together.” We arranged a drop-off play date, at our house. The play date lasted two hours, which is a long time for Martin to hold it together and pay attention to another kid, but he managed, and the affair went pretty well (some bumps, resolved with agreement to watch a spooky video together). Thereafter, Martin reported playing with Manuel at recess several times. Once he said, sadly, that Manuel had decided to play soccer with some other boys instead. I suggested that Martin consider asking to play soccer too, but he said he was sure Manuel and other boys would say he couldn’t play. The next day, however, Martin announced that he indeed asked to play soccer, and that the boys had said yes, and that he had played soccer. I was overjoyed.
Most recently, Martin invited Manuel to “bring a friend” day at his taekwondo school. I consider this Martin’s first self-generated, sustained friendship. Manuel is a cheerful and polite boy, slightly clumsy and overweight, in a mainstream classroom and receiving limited (very limited, by our standards) special-education services. I don’t envision him and Martin ever becoming the coolest kids on the playground. That’s fine by me. Adrian and I were hardly cool kids, either.
Martin plays Minecraft on his iPad. Back in February, he asked me to buy him a particular Minecraft book he’d seen two classmates reading. I did so gladly, because Martin hates reading, and I’m happy for anything that gets him looking at words. Then Martin asked for a plush Minecraft zombie, and then for a plush Minecraft baby zombie. I hesitated, as Martin is nine years old and doesn’t need any more stuffed animals, but relented on the basis that the Minecraft theme might be a way to connect with other kids. I made the right choice: Martin’s teacher and behaviorist both said that a couple boys from class asked Martin to play with his zombies, and subsequently that the three of them were sitting together talking Minecraft at lunch and snack time. Martin himself said, excitedly, that he’d played “zombie chase” at recess with his “friends.” His request for the plush toys appears to have been calculated, for the purpose of attracting positive attention. Good work.
Martin also has reported that playing more with Lucas. Martin has known Lucas since fall 2016, when they shared a desk, and we’ve attempted play dates with him before, without too much success. Now Martin says the two of them have invented a game that involves hanging upside-down on the playground slide and yelling, “Help me!” (Um, okay . . . .)
In sum, over the last couple months, Martin has cultivated a playground repertoire. He plays with Manuel, he engages in Minecraft-related activities with classmates, or he hangs out on the climbing equipment with Lucas. When none of those options is available, Martin says, he sits and reads a Minecraft book. Last year he spent virtually every recess alone on the swings. The swings have been removed due to ongoing construction at Martin’s school. I was scared of what that removal could mean for recess, but he seems to be weathering the storm. He’s made a few friends.
And now—just a few months after moving here, Manuel’s family has decided to leave. The cost-of-living in our area is too high, Manuel’s mother says, and they aren’t able to make ends meet.
Martin is losing his first real, independently found friend. He’s crushed.
So are we. Adrian asked me, “Could we lend them money? Help pay for their apartment? Anything?” He wasn’t serious, of course. We can’t go around sponsoring families to make sure Martin has friends.
Even if we might do just about anything else.