Yesterday afternoon Boo was starting to get restless and unhappy, so I suggested that we go to the park. He was elated by this idea. He said he didn't want to go to the park with the red slide (two blocks from home) but rather the one with the blue slide (other side of town...which in my town means about a three minute drive.) This was fine with me, as I prefer the park with the blue slide anyway. So we loaded up and headed out. But as I neared the park I cringed. The park with the blue slide is along side of the community building, which townspeople can rent for events. There were cars everywhere. Clearly the community building was rented for the day. The park was crawling with people.
We pulled up in front and I parked the car. I stared into the park. There were children everywhere. Boo saw them too, but he was elated. I was worried. I looked at the community building and there was a large banner draped on it announcing a family reunion. I cursed silently in my head. I surveyed the scene. I was weighing the possible outcomes of leaving vs staying and invading this family reunion. I decided that the latter was the lessor of two struggles and we exited the car.
Boo ran happily over to the blue slide, climbed up, and started chattering at the kids. I took a seat at a nearby picnic table under a shade tree, eyes and ears on high alert. I heard him at the top of the slide announcing "It's your friendly neighborhood Spiderman!" and I chuckled. But immediately after that, I noticed a confrontation taking place between Boo and an older boy. The boys face was contorted with some emotion I couldn't quite name. I was trying to figure out what was going on and at what point I should intervene. Boo was trying to avoid the boy, but the boy was following him, hounding him. I saw them put hands on one another's chests, but never in an overtly aggressive manor. Boo kept disengaging from the boy and going back to the other children, but whenever he would speak to them, the boy would get in his face again. Boo was trying to push him away, but the boy would take that as an aggressive move and put hands on Boo. I was incredulous, looking around the park for this child's parents. A moment later, I saw Boo walking away from the slide area, down the walking path which winds around the park. The boy was following closely behind, taunting him.
"Spiderman is STUPID!"
"NO he's NOT!"
"Yes he is. Spiderman is STUPID and all kids who like him are WEIRD!"
Ok, this is enough. Just as I made the decision that it was time to step in and stop this bully, they both put hands on one another and the real shoving match began. I barked at them, a loud and terse "HEY" that was heard across the park. The boy's head shot in my direction and he took off, ran to another nearby picnic table area. He was still close enough to hear everything I was saying. I addressed first things first.
"Boo, you can not put your hands on other kids like that. If there is a problem, you get an adult to help."
"But mom, that kid said that Spiderman is stupid."
"I know. And that kid can think whatever he wants. That's just his opinion. We like Spiderman and that's just fine."
The boy's attention was rapt. He was taking in everything that I was saying, he was staring at me. I suggested that Boo just ignore that boy and not talk to him or play with him. I said "He's being mean to you honey. He doesn't want to play or be friends. He just wants to be mean and hurt your feelings. I think you should just leave him alone, ok?" I wasn't sure how much of that Boo took in, because he was acting very distracted. But he took off and started making laps back and forth along the walking path.
I sat there so incensed I was practically vibrating. I looked around the playground at all the children of various ages. My mind was racing. This is a snapshot of a school yard. This is what my son is up against. He's going to be bullied. Everything I've feared is playing itself out. Oh my god, how can I protect my baby? After a while, Boo decided to re-join the children clustered on and around the slide. A few minutes later, he was lingering on the opposite side of the slide where I couldn't see him. I got up and peeked around. He and the boy were sitting side by side on the large PVC pipe that surrounds the slide area. I tensed. But their postures were relaxed, their voices low. Soon, Boo stood up with a huge smile on his face and ran toward me shouting happily "He's not going to be mean to me anymore, Mom. Yeah, he's sorry he did that, and I forgave him." I exhaled in relief, realizing that I'd been holding my breath.
The children all continued playing together. I downgraded myself from red alert to orange. I picked up my phone and started a game of solitaire. There was another boy there who had caught my attention. He was gangly and cute. He wore glasses and a buzzed haircut. He was trying to assemble some sort of club amongst the children. The others agreed to join, but when he tried to assemble a "meeting" it quickly fell into chaos, due in part to Boo's incessant chatter and insistence on being the center of everyone's attention. The boy in glasses tried multiple times over the next hour or so to assemble his "meeting" with similar results.
I had relaxed even more in that time. Boo was playing happily, if oddly, with the children. They were tolerating him in an amused, sometimes confused, fashion. I was sitting at a picnic table in the shade enjoying the afternoon. The boy with glasses walked up to me and stated matter-of-factly "Boo is weird." My heart flew into my throat. Crap, crap, CRAP! I thought to myself. My mind raced. He doesn't blend. He doesn't fit in. The gap between him and his peers is getting bigger, not smaller. What if it becomes a chasm? What if he can't overcome it? What if he can't manage meaningful friendships? What if he's always thought of as the weird kid? What if...what if...what if...
I pulled myself together and calmly asked the boy with glasses "what makes you say that about him?"
"Well, he says weird stuff. And when we ask him something he says stuff that's not even words."
"What is your name?"
"How old are you, Mick?"
"Well Mick, have you ever heard of something called autism?"
"Um, yeah. I mean I've heard that word, but I don't know what it is."
"Well autism means that someone's brain works in an unusual way. Boo has autism, so his brain works differently than yours. He thinks differently and sometimes acts differently. But that's ok, because he's just a kid who wants to play and have fun, just like you. He just wants to be your friend. Also, he's only five, so he's not as mature as you are since you're nine."
Mick took it in stride and didn't ask any questions. He sat down at the table with me and struck up a conversation, asking me if I liked animals. As we chatted, he rattled off an astounding number of facts about a large variety of animals. He spoke in large chunks of what I recognized as "scripts," probably from a book or books. I began to wonder if autism was a word he had heard for a reason. We chatted at length and he pulled me in. He charmed me and wrapped me around his little finger just as I've seen Boo do with adults a hundred times. I got quite an education also. We spoke at length and eventually we were joined by the first boy, the one who thought Spiderman is stupid. I learned that his name was Nate. As it turned out, he was a pleasant boy, if a little intense. Eventually, the conversation wound itself up and the kids moved on.
Boo asked me to push him in the big swing. It's a large swing designed to facilitate kids with disabilities who can't hold themselves up in a regular swing, but it's very popular with kids of all abilities. When he decided he was done swinging, instead of just getting out he made a game of it. He called out to Mick. Mick and Nate came over, along with a few other kids. Boo told them "I made a code for you. If you can crack the code you can get me out of here." (A variation of the Jack Bowser game on PBSkids.org) They immediately began blurting out possible 'code words' they thought might work, like "Spiderman!" But that wasn't the kind of code Boo had in mind. He was acting out a "script" from a video game. He launched into a long rambling explanation of how it was to work. He was going to pose a number of questions to the other kids and they had a number of chances to get a number of correct answers in order to win the right to free him from the swing. The numbers and the details were being constantly changed as the explanation went on. Boo would repeatedly back up, start over, change parts, add rules, and generally make what was essentially a simple quiz game sound like the most complicated ordeal in the world. The kids were gathered around him in a circle, and I watched them continually exchange questioning glances with one another.
Finally, Boo got around to posing the first question. "How tall is a giraffe?"
Mick asked him, "Do you know the answer?" Boo replied that he did not, and all the kids laughed. Mick inquired "How will you know if we answer it correctly if you don't know the answer?" Not understanding Mick's question, Boo simply moved on to the next item. I don't remember what he asked, but it was also something that he himself didn't know the answer to. Mick posed the same challenge, and again, all the children laughed.
I looked at Mick. "Do you remember autism? He's trying to make this game be like a game he plays on the computer. That's one of the things he likes to do that seems a little funny to other people. But he just wants to play with you." Mick nodded, and he and the other boys answered the next several of Boo's questions and managed to 'free' him from the swing.
They ran around playing for a while, and then Mick again tried to organize his animal club meeting. I agreed to attend. Boo was happy to go as well, but was trying to run it and make people listen to one of his own soliloquies. I called him over to me and explained that what Mick wanted to do for the meeting was for us to listen to him tell us all about polar bears. Boo sat quietly, and Mick began his speech. He was repeating the information he'd told me earlier verbatim. Yep, scripting. I was starting to love this kid. He stood atop a picnic table, trying hard to recall enough facts to qualify as a speech. Boo was quickly uninterested, but I made it a point to give Mick my rapt attention. Nate was serving as 'secretary' of the club. As near as I could tell, the duties of that position included sitting on the table next to Mick and occasionally whispering more facts in his ear when his speech got stuck. (This was clearly a conversation that had been ongoing between them for some time) Eventually the meeting was dismissed.
At that point, we had been in the park for about two hours and it was time to leave. To abbreviate the end of this little tale, let's just say I had to haul Boo away kicking and screaming. He did NOT want to leave the other kids. It took a while for Boo to settle and his meltdown to subside. It took even longer for me to wrap my mind and heart around all that had happened. It was clear to me that it was possible for Boo to be successful in a social setting with his peers, but that it was not going to happen without support. I am certain that if I had not been paying close attention, it would have been ugly. And had I not been watching closely enough to see the beginning of the problem, he would have simply been in trouble for fighting and it would have left him confused and frustrated.
It was clear that not only do we need to work on giving Boo the tools he needs to navigate social interaction, but we also have to work just as hard giving his peers the knowledge and education they need in order to be understanding and compassionate. His classmates need to be taught about his differences. It's clear to me that he is not going to "blend" as well as I had hoped. I will have to do some work to figure out the best means of accomplishing that, and I am confident that the kindergarten teacher will be receptive and helpful in that effort. It was a hard pill to swallow, but it's important to face.