A Day in the Life . . . The science of friendship

Tom, left, with his Camp Munroe buddy, volunteer Joshua Price.

“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On a tour of the camp last week, I was struck by how withdrawn my son was.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.”

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  1. Kim Bainbridge - proud employee at MMI says:

    As a parent whose son Justin has used services at MMI for 24 years, I cried when I read John’s article. It is what all of us parents want for our children. “Are you my friend?” Thank you John for writing this wonderful article. I know Tom will make friends at Camp Munroe.

  2. Jessica Brummer says:

    John – what a wonderful, heart-felt piece. I am sure Tom will come away with more friends in 2 weeks than you ever thought possible. Kudos to Camp Munroe and to you for sharing your story!

  3. Tom O'Connor says:

    Spectacular story, John. It really puts a face on what families go through when they have a special needs child. Thanks so much for sharing Tom’s story. I hope he enjoys Camp Munroe.

  4. Bill O'Neill says:

    What a great piece, John. Well done.

  5. A good piece to remind us how important friends are no matter how old you are. Are you my friend? The positive answer requires a commitment however brief. I’ve met Tom. I think he’ll have at least one friend by the end of camp, and probably many. It also reminds me how to coach my grandchildren on the playground when a child asks this question of them! Thanks, John.

  6. Jean says:

    John, you brought tears to my eyes. My friend Amy just sent her 10 year old son Joe, who has Down’s Syndrome, to sleep away camp in Lansing, MI. I hope Tom has a great experience and makes some good friends at the camp!

  7. docnan says:

    I hope they teach him step by step, in words and example, plans to interacting with a non autistic spectrum kid and then step by step how to build up the relationship. and I hope half the kids at camp are not on the spectrum because part of the equation is finding tolerant friends. Everybody says they love Sheldon (Big Bang Theory character) but in the real world there is more intolerance for differences. Tolerance is KEY.

  8. Kim says:

    John, this story really touched me. I am certain your son will make some friends at camp this week and quite possibly, some of those friends will be a lot like him and easy to relate to and interact with. Wishing Tom and the wonderful personnel at MMI the best week of camp!

  9. Dave says:

    Awesome stuff, John. Been there, done that. It sounds like Tom is doing great. We got the same diagnosis at 2 for my boy also. He just got a letter from school that he will be playing trumpet in marching band as he enters high school. You are doing the right thing and I feel that great parents can conquer any diagnosis….you have that covered for sure.

  10. J.M. Regan says:

    Beautiful, John. Keep us posted!!!

  11. sue anson says:

    What a heart-warming story; thanks so much for sharing. I could feel the emotion pouring through every word. My heart goes out to you & your family (especially Tom) as you continue your journey with Tom. What courageous & loving people you must be to continue the “fight” to get your son the loving care that he so desperately needs. I’m grateful that there are organizations like Munroe Meyer to give people the extra help that no one else can! Thanks be to God!!!

  12. Robin Taylor says:

    John, exceptional piece. It is a reminder to all parents and grandparents to teach our children the importance of friendship and acceptance. I hope Tom has an awesome time at Camp Munroe.

  13. Shilpa Buch says:

    Just beautiful ! You are blessed to have Tom in your lives…

  14. Maggie Milner says:

    Thanks for sharing a piece of your life with us, John. Both you and Tom are equally blessed to have each other. I hope Tom has a blast at camp!

  15. Anne says:

    John, what a beautiful and heartfelt story you are sharing – thank you. My son is volunteering at Camp Munroe this year and he definitely feels a friendship with the kids he has met. As they say, “letting someone with a special need into your life will make you a more special person.” I know my son is gaining a great deal by meeting and playing with these wonderful kids. And I am told the water basketball is REALLY fun! Hope your son is having a wonderful experience!

  16. Nicole Gallardo says:

    Thank you for sharing John! I hope Tom has a great experience at camp!

  17. Beth LaFave says:

    I have a son on the spectrum and we hosted a birthday party for him where no one but his best friend who is also on the spectrum showed up. Finally, in high school, the student population was large enough for these kids to make other friends. Hang in there, they do blossom as the years progress! Kudos to MMI for their summer camp program!

  18. Denise Pecha says:

    Thanks for sharing, John. Beautifully told. You know I am always rooting for Tom. I hope camp is a grand adventure!

  19. A.S. says:

    I would just like you to know how great he is doing at camp. He is not withdrawn at all and loves the playground with his buddies. You have a wonderful son, and I hope everyone says “Yes” when he asks, I know I would.

  20. What a heartfelt, honest post! John, I commend you for opening up and sharing your family’s story on the blog…I hope everyone who reads it is enlightened by your perspective and inspired by what happens at Camp Munroe. I have a good feeling Tom will be able to call at least a few peers “friends” by the end of the week. Kudos again on such a well-written piece. The comments truly say it all 🙂

  21. Melissa Tibbits says:

    Thank you for sharing your story. As parents, I think we always hope that others will embrace our children (whatever their characteristics) and offer them the compassion, respect, and love they deserve. For me, this article really reinforced the need to teach my son from an early age to be accepting of the differences of others and be open to the possibility of friendship with many types of people (and, of course, to lead by example).

  22. Ken Morgan says:

    Great job on this piece John. You and Melinda are giving him the tools he needs. Kids on the spectrum often relate better to adults, but he will find his way with the great support you and Melinda are giving him.

  23. Gerri Sullivan says:

    My son, Joe and daughter, Christina are volunteering this week at Camp Monroe. I had them read this beautiful article and they now realize how important they are to the success of the camp. They are looking forward to making a ton of new friends!

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