“Tell me your name, or we’ll shoot you.”
When you overhear a comment like that on the playground, you can’t help but take notice.
As bad as it sounds, I am not hugely concerned – the threat is coming from a child about four years younger and at least as many inches shorter than my son – but still, I guess I ought to take a closer look at this kid with this unusual strategy for “making friends.”
I had been trying to give my son a little space to play on his own this morning. We were taking a break from our homeschooling lessons – one of the unforeseen benefits of yanking my child out of our local school district is we can have the neighborhood park virtually to ourselves during the school day.
Truth be told, I have come to dread the playground. I resign myself to it because my ten-year-old still loves it and he needs time to run and climb and play. But, playtime is hard work when your child is barely verbal, socially quirky, and sound-sensitive. Not only do I feel a strong need to explain my son’s odd behaviors and “unique” vocalizations to anyone who seems to question them, but I have been drilled at many an autism conference to maximize any and all social skill-building opportunities. Communicative exchanges that come naturally to others need to be prepped, practiced, and coached incessantly – so even in play, we always seem to be working.
I typically hover near him in public settings, ready to diffuse awkward encounters and take advantage of every teachable moment. But, after years of safeguarding and facilitating every interaction, I have grown tired of explaining why my son won’t talk to the other kids; tired of the confused stares from children, the pitying looks from their parents. Lately, I have found myself feeling pretty jealous of the moms who can sit on the sidelines and indulge in a few exquisite moments of coffee and real conversation while their children play together. I wonder what that’s like?
So, when we got here this morning, I caught a glimpse of paradise in the lack of cars in the parking lot and the correspondingly few children running around on the playground. I decided to take the delicious opportunity to sit on a park bench and allow myself the luxury of letting my son “go play.” I was determined to put aside the social skills lessons and practice instead my personal non-hovering skills.
Right up until that potential threat of bodily harm, I was doing great. My kid ran up the stairs and down the slide a few times, each circuit taking him past a couple of kids digging in the sand at the corner of the jungle gym. I sat off to the side and imagined myself a normal parent.
In the midst of my daydream, I barely noticed when one of the other kids approached my son and posed the dreaded question: “What’s your name?” I did not rush in to fill the usual silence that followed, and when my kid responded in his typical fashion by putting his fingers in his ears, I did not offer an explanation. I recognized the odd look the kid gave him, but I did not intervene. As my son stepped past his eager new friend and walked to the other side of the jungle gym, I concentrated hard on tuning out.
But, I could feel my experiment crumbling when I saw the tow-headed five-year-old – who now had a friend with him – corner my son at the top of the rock-climbing wall. The boy repeated his “name-rank-serial number” request. Again, my son didn’t respond, but stood staring down at these two little guys, a bemused expression on his face. His persistent interrogator then tried that creative new tactic, which finally propelled me out of my fantasy of typical motherhood.
“Tell me your name or we’ll shoot you.”
Standing up, I edge close to the boys, and the truth of the threat comes into view. The little bully’s friend is armed with a large squirt gun. This is a relief since I am fairly certain that their ultimatum will backfire – my son loves to play in water and would prefer getting sprayed to saying his name aloud to strangers.
I can also see that a water-fight is not imminent. Rather than forcing my child to stare down the barrel of his Super Soaker, the would-be shooter is holding the gun pointed down at his side. He is looking back and forth between his friend and my son, and does not look at all happy to be forced to pull the trigger on a boy almost twice his size.
My son does not cave to their demands. He only smiles a bit, then brushes gently past them, fingers-in-ears, and bounces across the jungle gym bridge. I lean against one of the metal posts out of their view and watch as the determined little pest follows him. Most kids would have given up on my son by this time, so this guy certainly gets some points for effort.
When my son turns around to walk back across the bridge again, the pest blocks his way, arms spread wide, hands clutching both railings. Now the game becomes: “Tell me your name or you can’t get past me!”
With the vision of trying to explain to this little boy’s mother why my old-enough-to-know-better child is grinning on top of the bridge while her son is sprawled on the sand below, I prepare to step in.
I am reminded of a friend of mine whose non-verbal child was being teased on the playground a few years ago. When she confronted those boys to explain that her son didn’t speak, she shrugged and added this perfect gem: “Yeah, sorry…He only talks to cool kids.” The way she tells it, those guys followed her son around the rest of the afternoon, trying to out-do each other to prove to him that they were cool.
Although tempted to try that, it is clear to me that this little snot isn’t really a bully. He is only five years old. He is just trying to get my son’s attention in his own annoying, socially neuro-typical way.
“He doesn’t talk,” I say, my voice ringing clear across the almost-deserted park. “So you might want to move out of his way.”
The kids bolt at the sound of the Adult who has appeared out of nowhere to scold them.
“Thanks for trying though!” I call after them. I can’t help it. I hate to discourage any kind of social interaction for my son, even with a tiresome gnat.
And, sure enough, I instantly regret my urge to make things right. The little pest turns around and comes back at once to start the conversation I was trying so hard to avoid today.
“He can’t talk?” he asks, completely stumped by this revelation. He watches my kid bounce across the bridge toward him, and quickly steps aside.
“We can talk.” He is not boasting, he just can’t imagine anyone not being able to talk as much as he does. “We talk loud,” he adds, a slight apology in reference to my son’s ear-plugging.
“He talks a little bit,” I say, my standard kid-friendly explanation that does not even begin to touch on the complexities of my child’s disability. “But not very much. He’s still learning.”
The little pest sits on the bridge so he is eye-level with me, hangs his feet over the side, and pouts. My attitude softens a bit when I see that he is not just embarrassed to be reprimanded by another kid’s mom. He seems genuinely crushed that maybe this new kid can’t be his friend – if he doesn’t talk like we do, how can he play?
His disappointment is not an uncommon reaction. Playground friendships develop through competition and comparison – kids gravitate toward those who have similar interests or comparable skills; on the playground, they begin to define themselves, and others, by what they can and cannot do. But, my son does not seem to play by the same rules. Because he interacts with the world so differently, finding a shared interest is challenging and he often appears unable or unwilling to play along. Many kids give up the effort long before a friendship has a chance to grow.
I can feel myself beginning to share in this little kid’s disappointment. My son might be fine not to make many friends, and to him, social interactions might be more trouble than they are worth. But for me, it is sometimes hard to witness.
The little pest mutters his attempt at an explanation: “Some people are sick…so they can’t talk.”
Sigh. As I begin to try to explain autism on a kindergarten level, my phrasing is couched in apology and commiseration for what cannot be.
But then, I notice the bully’s squirt-gun-wielding accomplice standing to one side of the bridge. He is listening to our conversation, but is staring at my child – who is still plugging his ears and smiling near the top of the slide. This kid turns to me, and his shy question slaps me back to my senses and reminds me why I risk the public playground with my child:
“Does he do this?” he asks softly. “Does he talk like this?” He wiggles his fingers in front of his face.
I am instantly in love with this kid, without a doubt.
“Yeah,” I say, “he uses sign language, sometimes.” The kid’s face lights up as if we have shared an amazing secret.
And, here it is. As this boy looks toward my child with unmasked awe and curiosity, his friend looks down, shaking his head. In this moment, I see a clear illustration of the variations of “acceptance” that my son will face his entire life.
Both kids understand that my son is different.
One sees that truth as a negative.
The other sees it as an opportunity.
I recognize immediately which version my words and actions are promoting today. I have just been schooled by a five-year-old with an unused squirt gun.
With good coaching, inclusive schooling, and plain old life experience, both boys can learn to be tolerant, respectful, and more comfortable around people who are different from them. But the little pest’s mindset – unwittingly encouraged by my own attitude today – threatens to make it difficult for him to ever consider someone like my son a true friend. His reaction stems from the pervasive misconception of disability as deficit, of difference as “sickness.” It is an assumption about people who are different that garners support (and too often pity), but stops short of extending to them what we all deserve: genuine respect and friendship.
The reluctant shooter, on the other hand, demonstrates an eagerness to learn from someone who is different from him – a curious open-mindedness that promises to take him beyond mere tolerance. Kids like this are waiting for someone to show them the way, someone who can foster that kind of positive acceptance that they instinctively want to offer.
Amidst the stress and worry of raising a child with special needs, I had lost sight of my most important role. As my current state of burnout set in, I found myself perseverating on what my son cannot do and comparing him to others. I forgot to brag about him. I forgot that in the typical world, the positive attributes of those who stand out as different are not always easy to see. I forgot that no one knows my son like I do.
Soon, the kids are distracted by the reappearance of their mother-in-charge, and I watch as they race each other to the parking lot, moving on to their next adventure. I climb up on the jungle gym and my son laughs at my not-so-coordinated attempt to race him down the slides, expressing that great sense of humor and infectious laugh that those two kids didn’t get a chance to see today.
If I want my son to live in an inclusive world, I have an obligation to set aside the apologies and disappointment, and share my own enthusiasm about my son – to showcase his unique beauty at every opportunity. It’s the only way others will have the chance to get to know my quirky, fun, fantastic kid.
I may lose out on some choice opportunities to relax incognito on a park bench. But in exchange, I might just help my child find that one true pal – the one who wants to learn his cool new friend’s name…but who is willing to wait until my son feels ready to share it.