“Are you my friend?”
That’s my son Tom’s pickup line. He uses it most often on the playground when he wants to connect with another kid. Needless to say, most kids think the question — coming in a slightly sing-song tone from a boy they’ve never met before — is a little weird.
Most kids think my son is a little weird.
My son is at Camp Munroe for the next two weeks. He’s 7, and this will be his first time at the camp — at any camp. He was diagnosed “on the autism spectrum” – officially, pervasive developmental disorder, not otherwise specified – when he was a little older than 2.
We don’t want the moon from this camp. In the five years since Tom’s diagnosis, our expectations have continually modified. My great hope for the next two weeks is that Tom will come out of the experience with a friend.
Seems like such a little thing, doesn’t it? But apart from his siblings and cousins, Tom doesn’t have many friends. There are some children at school he names as friends when you press him, but he’s rarely been invited to any birthday parties. When his own seventh birthday rolled around, we sent out 28 invitations to a bowling party and were ecstatic to get five kids.
Most of the time, Tom doesn’t really seem to care. He’s not huddled in a corner of his room, wondering why no one likes him. He watches music videos, he shoots baskets, he rides his skateboard (under close supervision) and plays with his dog. He’s happy.
I care, of course. I worry for the day when he’ll try to make a connection and fail and be hurt. That’s why he’s here at UNMC this week. He spends the school year working hard, he’s 70 percent mainstreamed, he reads near grade level despite some comprehension issues – but he doesn’t know how to connect.
On a tour of the camp last week, I was struck by how withdrawn my son was. At home, when it’s just the five of us, he is outgoing and confident. He can even be combative if he thinks his brother or sister is being unfair, and my older son Joe had better watch out if he teases my daughter, Rosemary. Nobody picks on Rosemary when Tom’s around.
He can be sneaky if he’s trying to get away with something. (Mountain Dew at 7:50 a.m.? Who needs to ask permission?) And he has a little boy’s sense of humor.
On the tour, he showed none of that. He wouldn’t meet staffer Nicole Giron’s eyes. He wouldn’t answer her questions, unless she got face-to-face with him (in a very friendly way) and basically left him no choice.
He was excited by what he saw – the play areas, the other kids, and especially the pool. Monday morning, when my wife got up, he was sitting on the living room couch, holding his bathing suit on his lap.
“It’s Monday,” he informed my wife. “I’m going to play basketball in the pool.”
I hope, when he plays basketball in the pool, he plays with other children.
He’ll probably ask “Are you my friend?”
Maybe one of them will say “Yes.”