J’s First Friend

I worry about my kids all the time. I know this is natural. When you’re a Mum it’s part and parcel of the job description to spend our days frightening ourselves with all the imaginary obstacles that could get in the way of our little darlings’ happiness, safety or general amazingness.

When J was first diagnosed with autism, my worries shot through the roof, and once pre-school loomed on the horizon my anxieties had reach the outer stratosphere. I wasn’t concerned with how J would cope with the work at school as he is extremely intelligent. At three years old he knows the difference between a pentagon, a hexagon and an octagon. He had to be told the names of trapeziums and parallelograms once and they were ingrained in his mind. He can name double-digits numbers (ie he sees 63 and says “sixty-three”). He can read. And we’re not talking “cat” and “dog”. We’re talking flashcards in the kitchen that say “radiator”, “drawer” and “dishwasher”. He has an astonishing memory. No, his learning abilities at school were not something that gave me cause for concern. What I was worried about were J’s social skills.

So many times I have seen him wanting to get involved with the other children in the playground, but not knowing where to start. He tries to start conversations with other children, but they can be stilted and awkward (“Hello Girl. I am J.”) or just plain baffling for the other child (“Do you want to come to Sarah Beeny’s house?”). He has had plenty of exposure to other children, through his twin sister and his cousins, and through my friends’ children, but by and large plays alongside them rather than with them, and is unable to grasp the nuances and complexities of pre-school play.

Friends told me time and time again that J would be fine at school – he would excel in all his subjects, take his A-Levels early and go on to win Nobel prizes and change the world. But I couldn’t care less about any of that. I just want him to be happy. If a genie offered me one wish for J it would be for him to have joyful, meaningful relationships throughout his life – with friends, colleagues, a life-partner. And this is where I was terrified that school would just be too big a challenge for him to manage.

It is now two months since J started pre-school and I have been delighted to hear him talking about his classmates at home. His keyworker tells me that he knows every child’s name and has started trying to engage them in conversation. She has observed that sometimes his play has moved from playing alongside, to playing with. I was very happy, but still conscious of the fact that J’s rituals, behaviours and idiosyncracies can be something of a mystery to other children. Recently at a friend’s house J launched into one of his ritualistic behaviours, and the friend’s little girl said loudly to her mother: “See! I told you he was strange!” My poor friend was mortified and I had to reassure her that I was not offended in the slightest – to her daughter J’s behaviour was strange and I was pleased to have the chance to explain to her how J sees the world a little differently, and what she could do to be a good friend to him. I did not mind at all that the little girl had voiced her confusion about J, but I did mind terribly that his future classmates would, most likely, also think of him as “the strange one”.

But today something miraculous happened.

As I was dropping my children off at school I started talking to another Mum. And she told me that her son had specifically asked if J could come round to play. “Yes!” I exclaimed, “Yes, that would be wonderful!”. I got into my car and cried the whole way home. Then I phoned my Mum to tell her, and cried some more.

So my darling little boy has done it again. I was surprised when he picked up the names of different shapes so easily. I was astonished when he recalled information he had heard over a year ago. I was flabbergasted when he read four-syllable words that he’d only been shown once. But all of that pales into insignificance at how I feel today, knowing he has made a friend all by himself. I should not be surprised. Anyone who gets to know J falls in love with him. He is sweet and quirky and wickedly funny. And I should have known that, given the chance, he would show everyone who met him how wonderful he is. So J’s first play date is on the horizon. And yes, I will be a little anxious at how he will cope in an unfamiliar house and with a family who don’t know his needs. But I also know he’ll be fine. Because today I feel like there’s nothing my little boy can’t do. And I’m the proudest Mum in the world.

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