My son has had a tough go at life. He was born at 25 weeks after a very rough pregnancy. He suffered from Level 4 IVH at birth, spent months in the NICU, had brain surgery, heart surgery, and was given even odds at survival.
He made it through. His twin brother didn’t.
As a baby, we often wondered as we went from appointment to therapy to developmental milestone how he would do, how he would fit in compared to the typical peers in his life.
Despite his medical setbacks, including a completely unsurprising autism diagnosis around kindergarten and a handful of serious seizures that freaked out his neurologist, he has thrived. He was in a traditional classroom with support for most of elementary school. He has taken up coding, and can solve even complex problems when he stays on task.
Now, we’re going through his biggest challenge yet: middle school.
. . .
“Who’s Mark*?” I asked my son when he came home after his first not horrible day of 6th grade. It’d been about two weeks since class started, and every day had been a struggle. Today, though, things seemed different. He seemed calmer. And he mentioned this boy Mark.
“He’s a friend,” my son told me. “He helps me get to my classes.”
My son, along with his autism, has serious anxiety. He refuses to go anywhere alone. He broke his glasses twice in the few weeks of class because he didn’t have someone standing next to him for just a handful of minutes.
Unlike the contained environment of elementary school, middle school is in a big, sprawling building that even my wife and I had a hard time navigating on Back to School night.
My son’s teachers found a solution, though. Mark was a sweet boy in all of my son’s classes. Mark was willing to hang out with my son, eat with him at lunch, take him to his classes. It was probably a bit of a struggle for Mark. My son can be a bit clingy. And he’ll often dominate a conversation, rambling about coding in Scratch or how he wants to troll people in Minecraft or a new OS he wants to build.
Mark seemed to take it all in stride. The solution was working, a friendship was developing. Or so I thought.
Every few days I would hear about Mark from my son and from his teachers, praising this nice boy for taking my son around.
Turns out, Mark is just as much an asshole as every middle schooler.
. . .
One night, my son couldn’t sleep. I mean, extra couldn’t sleep, since he’s never been able to get to sleep without serious support (and usually some over the counter Melatonin). I asked him if something was wrong, and he said he didn’t want to talk about it.
It took a few days, but I finally found the source of his problems.
“I’m really hungry, Dad,” he told me when I picked him up from school one day, “I was too stressed to eat lunch.”
“Why’s that? Don’t you eat with Mark?”
“Mark told me he can’t hang out with me anymore. He said he’s getting to old for this.”
My heart broke a little. “So are your teachers getting you to your classes now?”
“Yeah, they walk me to my next class.”
“And what about lunch,” I pushed, “who do you eat with at lunch?”
“I eat by myself.”
“No one else is at your table?”
“No. Just me.”
I didn’t cry in front of him. He seemed to be handling it alright at the moment, and I didn’t want my reaction to make him feel worse. But I definitely did later when I got a moment alone.
. . .
As a parent, I want my son to thrive. I know success won’t look like his peers, but with support, he can grow. He’s on an IEP at school, he gets outside therapies and treatments, and we do everything we can to support him in his strengths (including paying for expensive coding school even when many of the sessions turn into meltdowns).
But the one thing I can’t do is get him friends.
Yes, I can practice and roleplay and do all the things that the experts say to do. I can invite over parents with children his age to try to spark something. But that doesn’t change the fact that he’s different, and middle school is where kids start to shun those who are different.
I want to call up the teachers and the parents and ask them to please, please just have their kid be nicer to mine.
At least don’t make him eat lunch alone.
It’s ultimately on the kids, though. I was probably a middle school asshole, too.
. . .
I hope my son figures it out. I hope that he can find his own tribe, even if all of them are a little different.
Honestly, it’s probably better if they are. Typical people can sometimes really suck.
In the meantime, though, all I can do is let my son know he is loved. Then melt down when I’m able to hide behind the closet door.
. . .
*name changed for the obvious reasons
This post was previously published on A Parent Is Born.
From The Good Men Project on Medium
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