Everywhere we go, my heart is happy when I hear kids say a cheerful “Hello” to my teenage special needs son. When we go to the park, the other kids shout a genuine, “Hey!” When we bump into my son’s classmates at church, they make a point to say “Hi” to him. I am so grateful to these kids and inspired by their kindness. It really brings me to my knees.
My son may not know how fantastic it is when this happens, but I do. I wish I could congratulate every parent of each kid who is kind to my son (who is pretty perceptibly autistic) and thank them for raising such cool people.
Don’t get me wrong, my son is definitely deserving of their attention and affection. He’s sweet, funny and smart. What’s more, he authentically enjoys all of the other people in his path every day. He wants to connect with them. He wants to hang out with them. He wants to be friends with them.
Only he doesn’t have any friends.
My son once told me that he wanted to run for class president because he’s “popular” at school. I don’t doubt this. He is well-liked. And he might just be that kid you see on Facebook who gets elected Prom King or something for being so well-supported by his peers. And in that moment, I would be happy for him because something like that would be truly special.
But it wouldn’t last.
The memory would be rich and decadent, as far as adolescence goes. And my son would be king for a day. But it would only be for a day, and I know it. He would have friends that day, that week, that month, that year maybe. But they would not be real friends. They might enjoy being part of that moment, helping my son succeed. After all, kids do some pretty terrific stuff when we let them.
But, even if he was the Prom King, my son would still have no actual friends. His acquaintances would text one another to find out where they’re going on Friday night, who just broke up with whom and where to find the next pick-up basketball game. But no one will text my son. After all, he probably won’t be able to drive himself anywhere on a Friday night (ever), he’s not interested in dating (that I know of) and he still prefers Minecraft to hoops.
The difference between kindness and friendship became clear at my son’s IEP meeting this year, when his teachers and team noted that there’s a tremendous difference between being liked and having friends.
But I’ll take well-liked. And I’ll take nice all day long. I’m a school law attorney and I field calls about bullying every single day. So, I’ll gladly welcome kindness, even in the guise of friendship. But still, my son never gets invited to birthday parties anymore or to the movies with his friends. He is well-liked and people are very, very kind to him.
But he has no real friends, and that makes me feel helpless and depressed.
Or, at least, it used to.
Recently, my kids and I went on adventure with some friends, another mom and her boys. It was a dazzling, brilliant experience.
But I noticed that one of her kids was texting about teenage stuff and that my son was trying to connect with him on a whole different level, a more juvenile one. The other young man was experiencing life as exactly that, a young man, yet my son was still interacting with him as a child. I quickly realized that this young man cared about my son, but may never be his friend.
And I was wrong.
The next week, my son went to therapy, as he does nearly every day, and told his speech therapist all about his weekend away. “I went with Danny, and he is my best friend in the whole world.”
So my son does have friends. He may not share the same definition of friendship that I envision for a teenage boy, but all of these awesome kids are still friends to him. They may not text him about girls or basketball, but that is because they know he does not care about girls or basketball. And, as I came to find out, they do text him, he just doesn’t text them back because his social skills are still a work in progress.
I have quickly realized that my definition of friendship needs to change.
Friends are “friends” in many different ways. If my son interprets kindness as friendship, that means my boy is rich with friends, his friends, according to his definition of friendship.
When my son looks in the mirror, he is smiling. He is happy.
And I am happy.