Sunday, September 16, 2012


Last year, we'd arrive at school and some of the kids in Ethan's class would gather in the hallway in little groups, attempting conversation or at least come form of communication. Not Ethan. He wanted to stand firmly next to me and look at the pictures of teachers posted on a bulletin board.

We've been in school two weeks now. He's in the afternoon again with a few familiar faces. One boy (I'll call him B.) was in Ethan's class last year. By the end of the year, they had started to "click," at least in class together, according to his teachers.

This year, Ethan calls him his friend. Ethan has played with his sister, and played with his sister's friends and friends of my friends, but this is the first time he's defined a classmate in these terms.

His first friend.

Earlier in the week when we got out of the car at drop-off time, Ethan spotted B.'s car. He stopped dead on the sidewalk.

"I want to wait for him!" he said. I almost did a double-take. You want to what? This, from the boy who ran ahead to the front door, oblivious of any classmates nearby or anyone calling him, nearly every day of the school year last year so he could hold the door for as many people as possible.

We stopped and waited. I noticed as I always do that B., like most typical kids, does not march up to someone and say, "Hi, how's it going?" looking the other child directly in the eye, the way we well-meaningly attempt to train ASD kids. The communication is more subtle, more unspoken.

This still presents an issue for Ethan, though, because he is just at the stage of wanting to have or be around a friend, never mind able to completely deal with the complexity of how to interact with him. Ethan looked in B.'s general vicinity without really noticing that B. was waiting for him to say something. Then Ethan reached up his hand to make monster claws and growled. B. laughed.

Apparently, this is their playground game. Ethan is the monster and chases B. Over and over, every day. At pick-up time Ethan is covered with sweat and red in the face. He's chatty and satisfied.

The other day after school we went to Target and discovered B. and his mom had gone there directly after school, too. We met up at the toy aisles.

Ethan actually asks for the toy area at Target now. He even, like Anna, prefers his own gender aisles and says things about not wanting to look at the "girly stuff." I find it ironic that he prefers looking at boy toys more than actually playing with them. That could be because Target has all sorts of cool toy displays with lots of buttons and sound effects.

At the toy section, we spotted B. and he called out to Ethan.

"Look! They have wrestling buddy toys here!" B. held some sort of stuffed wrestling character that you could apparently punch and get a recorded response out of. It's the kind of toy that would be perfect for Ethan in his current aggressive phase. I wanted Ethan to realize that, but first I had to get him to actually look at the toy B. was holding.

"I want to find the dinosaur," he said, speaking to me, not even acknowledging B.'s presence. I knew what he meant. He had come to this area to find the display of the dinosaur that morphed into a truck. The dinosaur with lots of buttons; the one that moved and roared.

I knew I had to go into interpreter mode. "Ethan," I said, stooping down low and trying to catch his eye. "He wants to show you his wrestling buddy. Look! It makes sounds!" Ethan gave B. a perfunctory glance and started to dart away.

"Do you want to show him the dinosaur?" I called out in desperation. Suddenly, Ethan could relate to his friend again. "Come here!" he said, looking straight at him. "I want to show you something."

Over in the next aisle, Ethan began working the display. Only he wasn't showing his friend how to do it. He was obsessively pounding, lost in Ethan World again.

"Ethan, take a break from that," B. started saying. "Ethan, take a break."

My heart sank. "Ethe, can you give him a turn?" I begged. He obliged. B. was happy. Another disaster diverted. A few minutes later, they called out enthusiastic goodbyes to each other.

The next day, I figured it was time. I had to say something to B.'s mom. It's taken me forever, but I've learned not to assume other people know about all of the details of our lives. Half the time we think they're watching us or our kids, they're thinking about their own stuff. Even though Ethan and B. have been in school together for over a year, I've never actually mentioned Ethan's diagnosis. Most of the kids in special ed. take the bus. I drop Ethan off. If you don't really watch or pay attention, he can pass for a typical kid.

I didn't feel like sharing our lives' story, but I had to speak up. I wanted to give her a little background, in case B. started complaining about playing a neverending game of chase, or that his friend doesn't know how to calm down and stop karate-chopping him.

"Your son is really good for Ethan," I said. "He has some trouble with the social stuff...he needs a lot of practice. This is the first year he's really talked about having a friend. I'm glad he's patient with the fact that Ethan likes to do the same stuff over and over."

It turns out, B.'s mom said B. is the kind of kid who likes to play the same game over and over, who kind of goes with the flow and goes along with what other kids like to do. Hence, why he and Ethan make such a good pair right now.

It's hard not to think about the days Ethan's monster games get old, when and his friend matures enough to realize Ethan always wants to play the same games and isn't quite relating to him at the same level. If preschool is difficult to navigate socially, what about the elementary years, or (gasp!) middle school?

I honestly don't know how much Ethan likes having a friend vs. having someone to chase. I don't know when he will begin to understand the give and take that comes with having a buddy, that it's not just about doing whatever you want to do, that there's a back and forth to all of this. I suppose some kids (and some adults, typical or not!) never do. We know this will always be a learned rather than inherent skill in him. We'll give him all the practice he can get.

The future is full of question marks. But for now, we can smile.

Ethan has a friend.

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