This afternoon, when I picked the kids up from school, Zoe ran over to the van. Weeping.
I opened the door and pulled her into my lap, and the words came tumbling out with her tears.
“Mom, Emily said she hated me. And then, when we were leaving school, and I was telling Roxanna what Emily said, Emily said she REALLY hated me. She meant for real. And I thought she was my friend.” Here, the words broke up into sobs, and she leaned into my chest. I hugged her tightly, stroked her hair, whispered in her ear that I love her and think she’s amazing. I asked if something had happened, if she and Emily had argued, if Emily had been upset about something. Zoe shook her head. “No. Nothing happened. Mom, I thought we were friends. She really hurt my feelings.”
“I’m so sorry, honey. I know how badly that hurt,” I said. “Just remember that you have lots and lots of friends who love you. Remember that we love you. It’s okay to tell Emily she hurt your feelings… Maybe she didn’t really mean what she said.”
“But she said it was really true, Mom.”
“I know, honey. But we all make mistakes. Pray for Emily. We’ll pray…for you both. Maybe Emily will realize she shouldn’t say things like that. When we get home, let’s talk some more about this. There are things I need to tell you—things that happened to me when I was a girl about your age. But you need to do the right thing and be kind, no matter what Emily says, okay?” In my mind, I replayed a few things Zoe had said in the past week, little things she’d noticed that she had in common with this little girl. Zoe liked her. She had, in fact, believed they were friends.
She shook her head as a whole new torrent of tears poured forth. I thought, And so it begins. Third grade is right around the corner.
Three years ago, when Riley started Upward Basketball, we thought it would be cool if she could learn how to play basketball well. We prayed more fervently that she’d make friends. The only thing Riley has ever expressed missing in life has been friendship. We asked that God would bless her with the joy of being part of a team. For our firstborn, we deeply wanted the confidence built from being acknowledged, valued, and accepted. We prayed that her teammates would be able to see her strengths in spite of her differences.
And I really believe that they have.
God answered our prayers with a mighty “yes,” and a group of people who have spurred Riley on and helped her grow for three years straight. And I cannot tell you the number of times I’ve sat on the sidelines this year cheering, my speech choked by all the love I’ve seen poured out on my daughter. It’s so hard to tell you what this means to me. I feel like there aren’t enough words. But I want to try.
Once upon a time, I really thought I’d never have any real friends.
For me, the meanness—something that felt horrible and made no sense to me at all—started in the third grade. If the teacher gave me a bathroom break with the wrong girls, they’d whisper about me, crammed into the stall next door, just loud enough so that I could hear the worst parts of what they were saying. They’d declare to the entire class that the color I happened to be wearing that day meant something nasty.
In the third grade, I had one friend at school. Her name was Tara, and she was a beautiful African American girl with big, open brown eyes, a warm smile, and the prettiest skin I’d ever seen. Almost every day, we laughed until our sides hurt. At recess, we linked arms and ran out into the sunshine for a thousand different adventures. Then one day, the mean girls (It’s funny—I still remember their names and faces all these years later) found us by the parallel bars. A whole group of kids (probably six or eight, but at the time, it felt like a mob) followed them, so I knew immediately that something wasn’t right. They looked directly at Tara, but pretended like they were talking to the entire group. “If you’re friends with her,” they said, shifting their gaze in my direction briefly, “go over there. But if you’re friends with us, come with us now.” I looked helplessly at Tara, who stood there, her brown eyes serious, looking at the group of kids behind the girls. She had seen how mean they could be, and I could tell that as much as she loved me, she wasn’t sure she wanted to walk in my shoes. She did not want to be another target for their meanness. She looked at me briefly, sadly, and then said, “Sorry,” moving over to join the other group.
At the time, the meanness of those girls was as incomprehensible to me as a foreign language. I am not sure that I understood baseless, unwarranted dislike any more than Riley and Zoe do now. I just knew that I wanted friends, and that for some reason those girls had come and taken the only one I had. Why do they not even want me to have one friend, I remember wondering, staring at their backs as they walked away from me, seeing triumph glittering in their pupils as they turned to look back.
When I was in the fifth grade, I got zoned to different elementary school. My mom and dad talked this up as a positive change, a chance to make new friends. But since I was new and in the fifth grade, most of the kids at my school that year thought everything about me was amusing, from the boots I wore in the winter to the type of belt I preferred to wear with my jeans. Some of the bigger girls lived to intimidate me. Every day, I cried when the bell rang and begged my mom not to make me get out of the car.
Granted, I was different. Just like Riley, I was an early bloomer. I lost my physical shape in favor of general roundness the same year I was baptized into Christ and sealed with the Spirit. Always an old soul, I was a little girl who loved to laugh but who had a deeply serious side. I loved the company of adults. My mom was my favorite person in the entire world and I wasn’t ashamed to admit it. I did not know how to be cool. I just knew how to be me. I’m not sure what it was about me that drew their dislike or what made me such an easy target. Perhaps it was the way that my emotions showed up so easily on my face (even and especially then), and the fact that I’ve always been a bit too perceptive for my own good. My mom always said, “Don’t let them get to you. There’s something about you that makes them jealous. Just let the things they say roll right off your back.”
“But Mom, I’ll never have any friends. I just want friends.”
“You will have friends. I promise. I know it doesn’t feel like it right now, but you will.” She was right, of course, but back then I couldn’t see it. My immediate pain blocked my view of all else. I could never have imagined that one day I’d have all the amazing, sister-friends I have now; women who are genuine, thoughtful, and fun; beautiful friends with whom my vulnerabilities are safe.
Equivalent to the stereotypical myth that all individuals with autism are not affectionate is the fallacy that individuals with autism don’t care about friendship. In fact, it has been my experience that most individuals on the Spectrum become acutely more perceptive about the way that people respond to them as they grow older. The need for companionship and acknowledgment are as real for many of those who have extreme difficulty with language and social rules as they are for the rest of us. Individuals with autism might not understand why greetings are necessary if both individuals share the same space (I once heard an interview with an articulate adult who has autism who explained that as a boy, every time his mother insisted he say “hello” to someone, he thought, “Why? She sees me, I see her.”), but they still want to participate in relationships with other people. They want to be understood and heard and loved, just like the rest of us.
My good friend’s son, who is also on the Autism Spectrum and currently nonverbal (nonverbal—not uncommunicative—one of our favorite teachers says he’s one of the best communicators in the whole group of students with autism at our school), acknowledges my enthusiastic greetings with a wide grin, turning his sparkling blue eyes in my direction and pointing at me with his middle finger. It’s the gestural equivalent of “Yep, I see you right there.” I love it! I actually think it makes a lot more sense than waving in the air like the rest of us do. I love that he does it with his middle finger, completely unaware that the rest of us lame-brains see that as an expression of vulgarity. I told my friend that he needs a t-shirt that says, “I only flip-off those I love.” My friend’s son is wonderful—refreshingly different, but not less.
Even before my children came along, my experiences in childhood afforded me genuine sensitivity toward the discomfort of others. Having felt that pain, I’ve wanted it for no one else. For years, it has hurt me to see other people feel alienated, unacknowledged, or unworthy of friendship. I have asked God to make me a good friend. Every person is worthwhile, genuinely interesting, worthy of time and acknowledgment,valuable in friendship. I still don’t understand disliking someone else because they are different, and I find dislike for the sake of dislike to be completely deplorable.
So, when it comes to my children, these feelings run especially deep and tender. Whenever someone mocks one of my children or misjudges their worth on the basis of their challenges, I feel more than just pain. I feel rage, of the sort I never knew I could feel, bubbling up within me. It comforts me some to know that Christ himself was mocked, despised, and rejected, though He was without the first sin. I am aware that those of us who follow Him can expect nothing less. As Christ prayed,
I have given them your word and the world has hated them, for they are not of the world any more than I am of the world. My prayer is not that you take them out of the world but that you protect them from the evil one. They are not of the world, even as I am not of it. ~John 17:14-16
But just as He was mocked and rejected, He overcame, and so “everyone born of God overcomes the world (1 John 5:4).” And God does not leave us without real friends.
When we started Upward this year, Riley was inadvertently assigned under another coach. Alarmed that Riley was not on his roster, Coach Carl sent me an email to inquire. He said that someone had suggested that perhaps we’d requested a different coach, and that the notion had crushed him. Of course that wasn’t the case, and so we soon had things all arranged, but the fact that having Riley on his team meant that much to Coach Carl is something I’ll always treasure.
Once, when Riley was in kindergarten (at a different school) and beginning to participate in mainstream classes for specials, her teacher walked by the art room and found Riley and two other special education students sitting in the hallway outside the door, their backs against the wall. When she inquired within, the art teacher said that she’d been tired of spending extra time trying to help them understand. So, she’d put them in the hallway so that she could teach the “typical” students without the hindrance. Within a day, I sat across the table from the art teacher in a meeting with Riley’s teacher and the principal.
“I just don’t think she’s ready for mainstream art,” the teacher sighed. “And I have twenty-five students and no assistants. I feel that it’s unfair to the regular education students for me to have to take so much time with Riley and these other students.”
I sat back in my chair and willed myself not to speak too quickly. “That must be very difficult. I can imagine how hard it must be to try to teach art to twenty-five mainstream kindergartners and three special education students, whom you feel have been placed in your regular class too early. I agree that you need assistants. But I think you really should have addressed those issues with me and with Riley’s IEP team in a meeting before you took action. Do you realize what you communicated to all twenty-five of those regular education students the day that you stuck my daughter and two other special education students outside the classroom, unattended, while you went on with your class? With that one action, you told that entire class of kids that people who are different, who have more challenges, and who require more effort and time are not worthy or valuable to the majority. You are teaching these children more than art.” At that point, I was shaking, and pressing my hands flat against my legs, but I continued, and somehow I managed to keep my voice calm. “And as long as Riley is at this school, I do not ever want to hear that you or anyone else has removed her from the classroom without my knowledge and consent. If you are having a problem with my daughter or her education plan, and you cannot resolve it at a later time, you had better call the office and ask them to send you some help.”
More than once, the ugly side of me has wanted to take Riley back to that school, find that art teacher, and introduce her to the person my daughter is becoming. So, I never take it for granted that there are people who love my children and who love to spend time with them, even if it means some extra effort, more repetition, sometimes even a walk on the edge of insanity. The fact that there are people who want to be with my children and who see their vast potential is a beautiful, indescribable gift. It’s something for which I thank God continually.
Early this year, Coach Carl laughed with us as we remembered Riley’s history with Upward and talked about how far she’s come. “I’ll never forget that first season,” he said, chuckling, “I told Riley that I wanted her to stick to that other girl like glue on defense. I said, ‘Riley, if she goes to the bathroom, I want you to go with her.’ Then, it was halftime, and Riley went with that little girl to the other team’s bench. I learned that I had to be very careful how I put things to Riley.”
Oh the joy in seeing others delight in the things that make our children unique! Don’t you know that God loves every little eccentricity we have in just that way? Isn’t it easy to see that He laughs about having to be careful about how He puts things to us?
It makes sense to me that in competition, Riley’s teammates might be leery about trusting her. This year, the games have been fast paced and very competitive. And sometimes Riley gets confused, and she’s not yet sure how to be aggressive on the court, and sometimes she gets nervous when suddenly she finds herself holding the ball. Riley has to work hard at dribbling and moving up the court, which requires a whole heap of motor-planning to which most of us just don’t have to attend. So, I would understand if these girls found it difficult to share the ball with her. But the spirit of Upward is that every player is valuable, regardless of skill level, and Coach Carl, his fantastic assistants—Coach Shaun, Coach Shelby, and Coach Cliff, and all the amazing parents of these girls have passed on that spirit well. Riley’s teammates encourage her and include her. On the court, rather than trying to keep the ball in surer hands, these girls search for opportunities to pass the ball to Riley. They call to her, remind her when she seems confused, get excited when she scores or does well. I have watched these beautiful young girls give up points they could’ve scored because they desperately wanted to see Riley make a basket. Watching these girls be Riley’s teammates, I am encouraged that there are parents out there who work hard to teach their children how to love God’s way. In these families, I see Christ.
When Riley does well on the court, Kevin and I are not the only people overjoyed by her success. The other parents call out to her, “Way to go, Riley!” And she smiles so wide, skipping all over the court. My heart soars. I see her hug her coaches and give them five. I see them chuckle when she tries to pick up everything she has and bring it with her to the team huddle after the game. I hear Coach Carl reiterate something he always says to the girls. “No matter what, we stick together.”
“No matter what, we stick together.” Now that’s friendship. That’s what it means to be a team. That’s what it means to be the Body of Christ.
I’ve seen this group of girls—Riley’s team, her friends—laugh with her a thousand times, but I’ve never seen them laugh at her or mock her. More than once, I’ve wanted to stand up at the team huddle and tell them what they’re doing for Riley—the way I see her fill with joy around them and all the ways she’s grown because of their patient friendship and encouragement. I want to thank them for accepting her, but I always stop short, not wanting to embarrass Riley. These days, she definitely notices her differences more readily, especially when it comes to mastering skills. And the biggest gift these girls have given Riley is the feeling that she’s one of the girls, that they’re glad to have her on their team. So I hope maybe a few of them will read this and know that, however inadequately I’ve put it, God has used them to bless us tremendously. Friendship is not something we take for granted at our house. It means more than I have words to describe, and by the grace of God, our cup overflows.
And to all my amazing sister-friends out there: Thank you for letting me be one of the girls. Each of you brings something very special, unique, and beautiful to my life. Friendship—your friendship—is such a precious gift.