Nigel has a friend over today, whom I’ll call Riley. Riley has been Nigel’s friend for about five years, and while Riley has several other good friends he would probably rather hang with on a Saturday, he always makes time for Nigel and accepts him, autism notwithstanding.
Nigel has always been a social person, which I think is what propelled him to step outside of himself and learn to talk. When he was about five and not functionally verbal, he would approach NT kids at the playground and try to engage them the only way he knew how: laughter. The problem was that the kids would think that he was laughing AT them, of course, which caused a slew of problems necessitating me to intervene. I think it was because of these unsuccessful experiments in the social realm that Nigel decided if he wanted to have friends, he needed to learn to talk.
One of my favorite sites for autism information is Natural Learning Concepts, which recently posted an in-depth interview with Stephen Shore that I really enjoyed reading. Here is what he says about friendship: “It is my sense that people with autism don’t want to have friends is a myth. What seems more accurate is that those of us on the autism spectrum have a different way of making friends.” So profound and yet so simple. I wholeheartedly agree.
Making a friend was a huge milestone for Nigel. And learning how to keep that friend has also been a milestone. It hasn’t always been easy: over the years, Nigel has had outbursts at school, including some resulting in injury to Riley, that I’m sure have caused Riley to reevaluate if it would be advantageous to continue being Nigel’s friend. But Riley does and he is. His presence and his loyalty encourage Nigel’s self-esteem more than anything else, I think.
God bless the Rileys of the world, and bless their parents for raising them to be such patient, understanding kids. We need a few more Rileys around.