Jahmahl and Bobby today, with a couple of unlikely looking buddies and below, in 2010 when they were in Year 2 together
The assumption that all kids with autism are forced into a lonely and isolated existence is the sort of assumption made by those who don’t really know much about autism in the real world.
Whether a child will be lonely or not depends on many factors. It depends on whether they are surrounded by adults who understand them and help them to love themselves as they are. It depends on what they’re like as people. It depends whether they enjoy being on their own. It depends whether they have the social skills to connect with others or whether these need to be learnt. It also depends on who they’re surrounded by. The point is, autism doesn’t come in a parcel labelled ‘isolate from others’.
Since having my twins, both of whom have autism, I’ve learnt that there is more understanding and compassion in the world than I could possibly have imagined, and most of it comes from other young children. They don’t see limitations or labels, they simply enjoy another’s company or they don’t. They don’t weigh up possible friends with a tick-list to evaluate potential. The younger they are, the less judgemental, I've found.
I used to hate it when other parents said: ‘I’m glad your son’s in my child’s class, it’ll teach them that people are different.’ I used to feel all spikey and clammy when they said that.
‘So my son’s just a learning tool for your bright and talented charming little kid, is he? Is that what he’s there for? Not a friend on his own merit, but an educational aid?’ That’s what I used to think.
Now that I’m very much more relaxed about my children, that sort of thing still makes me cringe a little, but actually it is very well meant. The other parent is pleased that their child is learning tolerance, and who wouldn’t be? Better that than the snobby parents who want their kids to steer clear in case the autistic child holds them back in some way. I haven’t had that, but I’m sure it’s common enough.
So back to making friends, then. If you look at it dispassionately, Alec doesn’t really have friends apart from the adults who care for him and Bobby who of course is always his best bud.
Alec, left and Bobby, right
When the twins were younger, I used to fret about this a bit when it came to party time. Should I invite six of Bobby’s friends and six of Alec’s ‘friends’? I mean the term 'friends' here in the sense that Alec would rub shoulders with these kids on a daily basis at school.
Well, to invite them might make me feel a bit better about it, but would Alec give a monkey’s? No, he wouldn’t. That would be the same as opening my wallet and sticking all my money down the drain.
In fact, Alec appreciates his brother’s friends far more, as they have the communication to engage him and boost his social skills, whereas the kids from Alec’s school are all pretty much doing their own thing. Alec adores Jahmahl and has even tried communicating with him.
I got over this party hurdle one afternoon when attending a birthday party hosted by one of Alec’s school ‘friends’. I was filled with admiration for the hard-working mum who had made the whole thing happen, but one look at her daughter’s face was enough to put me off doing the same. The little girl clearly hated it and was howling (maybe it was an over-stimulating environment). If she could have spoken, she probably would have said: ‘Why have you invited HIM? I hate him!’
If Alec ever shows me that he has a particular preference for someone, then they will attend his birthday party. Until then, he’ll have to put up with the grown-ups and cousins who love him to bits, trips to Thomasland – and the cake, which is all Alec truly cares about when it comes to celebrations.
With Bobby, I have learnt that being different isn’t a barrier to friendship whatsoever, as long as you are confident and happy enough to invite those people into your life and you are capable of giving them the signals that they are welcome and learning how to keep friends as well as make them.
Bobby is always the first to approach a new child in the class and befriend them, giving them a tour round the school. His kindness and charm seem to help them to override their tentativeness about befriending a boy who flaps and repeats what he’s heard on TV a lot. On balance, a boy who is willing to make friends on that first terrifying day is well worth the effort, they seem to have concluded.
We gave Bobby the confidence to recognise his autism without worrying about it. He gives off the same vibe to everyone else. That's what we can claim credit for. The rest of it was down to him and personality.
The first day that Bobby attended primary school, he met Jahmahl. Because of his lack of speech (he had a few words when he joined primary) and his lack of maturity for his age, he was constantly surrounded by girls, who thought of Bobby as a giant teddy bear who would be the uncomplaining ‘daddy’ of their pretend play (which was all a giant mystery to him then).
I was really happy that there were kids there who liked Bobby, but I was doubly happy that he had made friends with a boy who liked him for who he was and didn’t see him as a little project.
There was no doubt that Jahmahl had a deeply sympathetic nature and felt protective of his new friend, who he had sussed was a bit different. But the main thing that drew them to each other was a tendency to laugh at the same things.
Bobby’s in Year 5 now and Jahmahl is still his best friend. In many ways they are poles apart. Jahmahl wants to be a free runner when he grows up and bounces off walls in his spare time. Bobby can barely manage a high bar stool. Jahmahl’s hairstyle changes with the season. Bobby’s hairstyle is limited by his double crown and varies between neat and fluffy and very messy.
Bobby has plenty of other friends, but none quite so faithful as Jahmahl. It is such a wonderful feeling when you realise that your own love is not the only unconditional sort that your child will ever earn.
Autism is not a full stop, it’s a portable question mark that changes everywhere you go and with everyone who surrounds you.