It had been a difficult decision as to whether to go; it was being held at the Big Gym, which has always been a rough place for N; he loves it, he hates it, he wants to be there, he can't be there. And to make it worse, there wouldn't be a single other child, aside from Weeyum, whom N would know.
Weeyum's mom--my lovely friend J--suggested that, if N or I would prefer, we could do a special day with the boys another time, instead of putting him through this sort of potentially upsetting social scene. But N had seen the invitation, and he was dead set on going. So we went.
It was--if you use a neurotypical measuring stick--a complete disaster. N refused to take his socks off, refused to even enter the room where the other kids were playing. When they left the gym and went into the party room to have pizza and cake, N grabbed the chair right next to Weeyum, but soon abandoned it to come sit on my lap, insisting on having my hands over his ears while the rest of the kids sang happy birthday, refusing to eat any ice-cream cake, refusing to be in the group photos.
During the time the kids were in the gym, N wandered around the lobby, watching the others through the large windows, eventually talking to one of the mothers, one I didn't know, hadn't met. He was flirting with her, actually, as is his wont--chattering away, asking her to play with him. I had moved into the party room to help J set out plates and such, and also (no need to pretend otherwise) because I was embarrassed by N, by the way he was acting, by the way he was standing out. I was embarrassed because of what I assumed the other mothers were thinking about him. (I'm not even going to link here. If you've been around the special needs/autism blogosphere this past week you know why that was on my mind, why I was thinking about the other mothers' judgements of my son.)
And I was even more embarrassed by myself, by my embarrassment. (What kind of mother...I berated myself. Really, the only one behaving badly here was me.)
After I while, I noticed that this same mom was still interacting with N, handling him just fine, never once looking to me for help or intervention. At one point I saw J go over to N, trying to get him to join the group, and this mom just looked at her and smiled. "He's scared to take his socks off," she said. "He's fine here."
After the gym party was over, we moved to a nearby park to open presents. Again, N refused to join in with the other children, seeking the same mom out, asking if she would play ball with him. I was talking with another parent, watching; I saw her say a few words to her older son, a boy around N's age, then open a juice box for her younger, who was probably around five. Done, she let N spirit her away to play some game of his devising, with elaborate rules only he could possibly understand. But she never seemed rattled or upset, never sought my eyes, never seemed to want or need rescuing. So I stayed where I was, and turned my attention to the other kids.
And that's when I saw him. This other mother's older son, not too far off from the group of yelling, tumbling kids, but not part of it, either. Walking in circles around a tree; talking to himself; making spaceship sounds; gesturing with his fingers; entirely in his own world; absolutely happy.
I sidled up next to J, who was setting out some snacks. "That boy, M," I said gesturing to him with my chin. "He's one of N's people, right?"
J looked confused for a second, then realized what I meant. "Yes," she said. "Yes, he is. How did you know?"
I didn't answer, just watched him, watched J watch him, watched her see what I was seeing.
"I didn't see it until just now," I admitted. "At the gym, I couldn't have picked him out at all."
"That's his safe place," J said. "He goes to classes there all the time."
I turned to look at N and the other mom, still throwing the ball back and forth. "No wonder," I said, more to myself than to J. "No wonder she's handling him so well, so easily."
* * * * * * *
It's Autism Awareness Day today.
This last week has been one very long spate of awareness. In addition to the party, there was the Mother-Son Olympics at N's school, where he participated in most of the events, including the 'ski jump' (a leap onto a gym mat after running along a picnic-table bench). He went far on the jump, earning our team a bunch of points, and our teammates cheered him, loudly, when he landed. At which point he looked up, startled, burst into tears, shrieked loudly, and ran behind me to put his head under my coat. (That's him, after he'd recovered himself, in the photo up top.)
And then there was the Passover seder at our house on Monday, where N greeted my friend and work colleague, K--with whom he is unabashedly in love--by telling her "your hair looks weird" and refusing to offer any more of a greeting, then proceeded to completely lose his ability to deal, shrieking and wailing, when his friend C erased something he'd drawn on the whiteboard in our kitchen.
Oh yeah. I'm aware.
I'm aware of the ways in which N's place on the autism spectrum marks him as different, and the challenges that brings. I'm aware--once I've had a few days to regroup, at least--that there are and always will be good days and bad, and that that's par for the course with any kid. I'm aware that my son is special, but also that he's no more or less special than his sister. That he has special needs, needs special handling, but that the needing and the needing to be handled are themselves no different than with any child. It's just a little more challenging to meet those needs, is all. And sometimes it feels more fraught.
I'm also aware that N's interactions with the world mean that people will judge him for his differences. Sometimes, they will no doubt judge him harshly; this is, after all, a kid whose autism doesn't really look like autism, but often like shyness, rudeness, brattiness. He doesn't flap or toe-walk. His speech isn't obviously scripted or repetitive. His gross motor skills are fine--in some areas, they're even remarkable. Even parents who know what autism looks like might not always recognize N. (Though this weekend? You couldn't miss him.)
But I'm also aware that sometimes these people are not judging harshly. As I learned from the other mother at Weeyum's party, sometimes they understand, even if it doesn't seem like they possibly could. It may be because someone they love is "one of N's people," or it may be because they have a good and open heart.
Or it may just be because they are aware.