by Devon Alley
When you’re the parent of an autistic child, the silliest things make you cry. Sometimes, these are sad cries, like when A was about three years old, and she was kicked out of a dance class with the instructor talking down her nose at me: “I don’t chase children.” But, sometimes, these are happy cries — like the tears streaming down my face last night as I eavesdropped on A’s telephone conversation with one of her friends at school.
First of all, it’s amazing that A is choosing to collect phone numbers from her peers at school. Secondly, it’s amazing that she decides she wants to call them. I remember trying to encourage her to make phone calls to her friends at school just a few years ago, and how stressful it was to essentially have to coach her through the whole call — to explain to her the need to use proper greetings, that she had to wait to talk until she’d heard a voice on the other end of the phone. My daughter used to get frustrated with voicemail and answering machines, unsure what was going on and what was expected of her. She’d often hang up the phone without saying goodbye, or even without really ending the conversation, and on the rare occasions she would actually talk on the phone, she’d really just quote something to the person on the other end, generally not expecting a response at all.
In other words, telephone conversations were a little challenging for A.
Last night, however, A followed all of the appropriate social rules of phone calls. She used a greeting (albeit a sparse “Hi!” but I’ll take it). She asked to speak to T. She greeted T and asked her “What’s up?” And then, of course, she outlined the purpose of her call, which was solely to discuss a very specific BrainPOP animation that they both loved. I’m not sure what T said as a delay tactic, but she managed to get A interested in talking about other things first. It’s amazing how wonderful and intuitive her new group of friends are; they seem to know exactly how to push A just a little out of her comfort zone without frustrating her, which I find really impressive. Whatever the conversation, T must’ve sounded a little down-in-the-dumps, because I heard A say:
“Why the long face? I mean, did anything upset you?”
Which is the point in the conversation I started crying.
Like many mothers, I was told when A was first diagnosed with autism that she would have a very difficult time empathizing with others — that, in fact, it might be nearly impossible for her to do so. And, like many mothers, I completely believed it. She didn’t really seem to form any social attachments with me or any other family members the way that other children seemed to do so. She seemed isolated, aloof, and completely unconcerned with everything happening around her. (Which just goes to show how little I knew at the time, since she tells me now that she can remember a morning back then when I was really sick, and she was afraid I was going to die.)
Yet here, nearing the age of 12, my daughter is concerned about her friend’s feelings. Not only that, but she has learned how to express that concern. And while her verbiage still is (and will likely always be) somewhat awkward (i.e. referring to a “long face” when she can’t visibly see the person she’s describing), she is still displaying real empathy here. I am so very proud of how far she’s come.
Which is, of course, not to suggest that there won’t continue to be issues. Throughout the conversation, she continued to badger her friend about the BrainPOP animation: “Okay, can we talk about the BrainPOP lever cartoon NOW?” But these requests were mixed in with a more natural flow of conversation: “Oh, that’s my dog. Yeah. About two weeks ago. He’s a Corgi and Terrier Mix. If my mom holds him for very long, she gets all itchy because she’s a little allergic.” It was really awesome to listen to her respond to questions, share information, and be extremely socially appropriate throughout her conversation with her friend.
And I know it’s silly to cry, even with joy, about these things. But I spent so much time worried that this would be something that would never come easily for A. And, actually, I know it’s something that doesn’t come easily for her now — I know she has to work twice as hard at navigating a simple phone call than another child her age. Still, she’s doing it — she’s making the effort, and she’s succeeding in keeping these friendships thriving. And I am so very impressed, and so very proud of these small moments, and of how far she’s come.
About the Author: Devon Alley is the mother of a child diagnosed with high-functioning autism. This piece first appeared on her blog, From Inside the Puzzle: Raising a Child with Autism, and is reprinted here by permission.