Throughout his life, when asked, Ben has always said that he has friends. But that is only because he doesn't really understand the difference between knowing people, and being friends with people. I think he has always assumed that if he knows someone's name, that means he is friends with that person. However, he has never been invited to another child's house to play, never been invited to a birthday party, and never had any interest in inviting anyone over to our house for a play date, either. In fact, he has always been quite content to play alone in his room or at the computer (except for the occasional joint activity with a sibling, and only if the sibling is doing something that Ben really wants to do).
But suddenly, something has changed. Ben got into the car last week after school and as we were driving home he said, "Mom, me and Ozzie kind of made a deal that I can go to his house to play at 3:30." Not sure I had heard him correctly, I repeated what he had said and then asked, "Did Ozzie ask his mom or dad if it's OK for you to come over and play?" The answer was no, so I explained that usually moms and dads must be consulted before arranging a play date. Ben responded, "Oh," and then didn't say another word on the rest of the drive home.
Clutching hopefully at this opportunity, though, when we got home I told Ben he should call Ozzie and have him check with his parents about playing together. I coached Ben as to what he should say when someone answered the phone, then dialed the number, handed him the phone, and held my breath. In a matter of seconds I could hear Ozzie's dad pick up on the other end of the line. Ben asked if Ozzie was home, to which his dad responded that he was not. Ben said, "Oh." And nothing more. After all, this wasn't the script we had rehearsed. Just when I was sure that the conversation would end rather abruptly, Ozzie's dad took the lead, told Ben that Ozzie would be home at 4:30, and then instructed him to come over at that time. Ben said OK, hung up the phone, and ran downstairs to play on the computer while the enormity of what had just happened washed over me. Ben was going to play with a friend!
Then the questions started: Should I call the dad back and let him know that Ben has autism? Does he already know? Will Ben know how to play with another child appropriately? What happens if Ben gets upset? What if Ben has a meltdown there at the friend's house?
In the end, I decided to not make too big a deal out of the play date. I drove Ben to Ozzie's house, told him I'd be back in about an hour, and then encouraged him to get out of the car and go ring the doorbell. Ben hesitated for only a second, and then as he emerged from the car, Ozzie opened the front door and Ben ran inside. As the door closed behind the two boys I looked over at my daughter, who had come along just to witness the miracle with me, and she said with a mix of amazement and reverence, "Ben is playing at a friend's house!"
The play date went just fine: no meltdowns, and Ben said he had a good time. The next day, Ben got into the car and said, "Ozzie wants me to come over and play again, but I really don't feel like it." I was disappointed and feared that the "friend" phase had ended as quickly as it had begun. But there have been two additional play dates since that time--another at Ozzie's house that migrated to our house before the evening was over, and today, a third encounter.
I can't help but wonder: What does the future hold for my little boy? Will he continue to be friends with Ozzie? Will he develop other friendships that are mutually satisfying for both Ben and his friends? Last week, my daughter Izzy told me that a boy at her junior high school--a boy with autism--had invited several people to his birthday party. On the appointed night, no one showed up and the boy and his mom ate the cake together, alone. My heart broke for that family.
But then my daughter told me that because they all felt so bad about what happened, they had planned a big surprise party at the park for the boy, wherein a couple dozen kids from the junior high met at the park and then began singing "Happy Birthday" as loudly as they could when the boy arrived and got out of his car. Izzy reported that he had an enormous smile on his face as he ran across the field toward the singing teens, excited to be remembered and included. I can just picture it, and I swell with emotion at the image.
Will Ben have true friends as he gets older--the kind that show up for parties and invite Ben to be a part of their activities? And if not, will he have peers who support him and love him enough to reach out to him when he is disappointed and alone? I'm so proud of my daughter and of her friends who went out of their way to embrace their classmate. I think there is a special place in heaven for kids like that. And, as the mother of a child who might be alone someday, there is a tender place in my heart for those kids, too.