Difficult Come, Easy Go

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.

Never Gonna

I am a parent, obviously. I hope I am a good parent. I have a son, and I adore him. I try to help him. He seems to be doing well. That’s enough of parenting, right?

I was in Manhattan and walked by a playground full of preschoolers and kindergartners, and even some babies and toddlers. The kids were chasing each other and calling out, climbing, jumping. Some adults were interacting with kids. Others sat on benches and chatted. It all looked so normal. So typical.

In a moment I felt the full impact of our decision—Adrian’s decision, and mine—to have only one child. Martin is seven years old now. Every day he’s closer to recovery. Every day he’s more like typical children. Nevertheless, even if he were to shed every last vestige of autism this very day, I will never have the experience of parenting a typical preschooler or kindergartner. I will never know the experience of those playgrounders. My experience of typicality will begin only with an older child.

What are the analogies to this situation? Adopting an older child? Certainly not. I’ve had a child for seven years. I’ve been parenting all this time, just a different type of parenting. Have a child who transitions gender? Maybe sorta like that. First you have one type of kid, and then another, but the child stays the same and you love that child either way.

Let’s face it: I will never have a toddler help me make Rice Krispie treats like in Kellogg’s commercials.

I will never get to be the mom who Pinterests craft projects with her preschooler. (Not that such an outcome was ever likely. I am who I am.)

I will never put a kindergartner on the bus, first day of school, and wonder whether he is going to make friends or like his teacher. Two years ago, I put my kindergartner on the bus, first day of school, and wondered whether his teachers would understand the importance of restricting foods not on his “acceptable” list.

And what of Martin, who has been deprived of typical preschool, of typical kindergarten, of typical grade school so far? He will never have those experiences, either. Years from now, when his friends ask, “Remember in second grade when we were all into Captain America? Remember peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches?”, what will Martin say?

I am a parent. I hope I am a good parent. I have a son, and I adore him. I try to help him. He seems to be doing well. That’s enough of parenting, right?

In the blue, at the top. That's my kid.

In the blue, at the top. That’s my kid.

Mommy, Gone Missing

I’m back from Germany, as of late Wednesday evening.

Just in time to (1) watch the Rangers blow their series against the Devils, shattering dreams of repeating 1994’s Stanley Cup run; (2) get caught, twice, sans umbrella in the thunder and splattering rainstorms passing through New York; (3) waste an afternoon at the Apple StoreGenius Bar” attempting to rectify a software glitch; and (4) spend a pretty decent day with Martin.

He had yesterday off from school, so we made a day of doing exercises and running some errands.

After breakfast—leftover green pudding, which Martin practiced scooping and eating by himself—and HANDLE exercises, we headed out to the Union Square Greenmarket for meat and duck eggs. The trip presented an RDI opportunity: Martin and I discussed which subways we could take, and where we would transfer, and how we would board either the 4 train or the 5 train. (Like many ASD kids in New York City (I’ve discovered, from talking with other parents from his school), Martin memorizes train lines and insists we take a particular train, even if another hits the same stations.) He did swimmingly. On one train he opted to stand and hold a pole, and he kept balance as the car braked and rattled and jerked from station to station. My little straphanger.

At the Greenmarket he was calm, enough, as we visited the farmers I know. He willingly held my hand while walking, and stayed close when I needed both hands for my wallet and insulated food bag. Only when he spotted the Union Square playground did he get fussy and impatient. I bargained another five minutes’ shopping time (“…and then we’ll go to the playground…”), and we hit the playground.

The playground, where we had one of our little miracles.

The playground experience with Martin has evolved. A year ago the process was exhausting; Martin had so little environmental awareness that I had to scamper to position myself below him constantly, in case he failed to realize that the jungle-gym or bridge was ending and launched himself off the end. Sometime during summer 2011 we moved to a new level, wherein I could sit on a bench and watch Martin from afar. Still, I could not let him from my line of sight, insofar as he rarely kept track of me and might wander away.

That’s where I was yesterday—observing Martin from afar—when I saw him glance around (searching for me!); realize he didn’t know where I was; whimper, “Mommy! Mommy!”; and then become agitated when he couldn’t find me.

That’s right. My ASD son, who once upon time bolted every time I released his hand, got upset because he couldn’t see me.

I called, “Martin! Martin! I’m here!”, and waved until we made eye contact.

He smiled. I cried a little.

Soon after that, we left the playground, stopped at the bank, took the subway home, ate lunch, then went back out for organic green juice and to purchase a gift at Jacques Torres. Pretty routine stuff, except when you consider that, when you have a kid on the spectrum, everyone else’s “routine” is a victory.

And there it is. What I saw yesterday for the first time will soon be routine. Martin will keep tabs on me. Not quite like I keep tabs on him, but something more like a preschooler should do.

After all, we’re a team. Martin and I.