I’ve been dreading this post for years now, but the topic just keeps coming up. I’ve been hesitant to reveal my feelings on the subject, but as you all know, I’m an open book, at least on here. It’s important to share these things and one day, I hope my children read this, especially my daughter. I think it’s something that we can all relate to whether you are a child or an adult and most definitely if you’re a girl or woman. It especially hits home when you’re child has special needs and is a bit different from typical children. So you’ll have to prepare yourself and allow me a bit of a longer post this time around.
I’m talking about the whole making and keeping friends thing. Can we all just agree it’s not always the easiest, especially the older you get? When you’re younger you want to be friends with everyone and when you grow up it’s all about the quality, not the quantity. I mean, you can have a million acquaintances and people you are only slightly familiar with (like some of those here on facebook), but those close, close friends are few and far between.
MY EXPERIENCE WITH FRIENDS
Growing up I had some great girl and guy friends that I still consider friends to this day. Those friendships were pretty straightforward and just wonderful, from when I was a kid to now as a grown up. In college and when I met my now husband, I made some more amazing, lifelong friends. These have always been pretty simple, constant, and just plain great people!
Then, when I became a mom, I made a whole new group of friends. These are the relationships that became a bit more complicated, mainly because we were exhausted and had no time for anything other than taking care of babies. It was a great support system to have, but at times it was also a ton of drama. That’s right, I said it! Women love their drama lol Well, let me be clear, I don’t think we all love it as much as when there are several women together, it can thrive there and our emotions can sometimes take over. Don’t get me wrong, women and mothers are inherently, for the most part, loving, caring individuals. It’s just sometimes When there’s a group of us together, we can be clicky, super competitive, a bit malicious and downright mean.
Enter my daughter’s diagnosis several years later and let’s just say I learned pretty quickly how to categorize people into groups of who was a friend and who wasn’t. As a matter of fact, I stopped using the word “friend” as casually. It took on a whole new meaning for me. I learned that drama had no place in our family’s relationships, that if you’re different you aren’t always accepted, that we wanted friends who were loving, inclusive and accepting of us and our children, and that a clique was no place for me. Then as time went on, my group of friends expanded into this great community of people who have children with all types of special needs and are some of the most extraordinary people and parents you’ll ever meet. When our kids reached school age, we were fortunate to meet a lot more great parents at our school who have become friends. A lot of them have been going through similar struggles and in general, it’s a pretty supportive group of people too. Still, it has sometimes been a bit of a lonely road over the years. Our life and what we can and are willing to be involved in, is quite different than some of families. You don’t always have a lot in common with people anymore. Friends have come and gone. The quantity of friends greatly diminished, but quality has remained.
It really rings true that there are friends in different phases of your life, for different seasons. These people who surround us now, along with our family, are really at the center of our lives. They are our extended family that support us in our faith, in raising our family, and in our challenges with autism. The lessons I’ve had through my friendships, combined with what autism has taught me has really forced me to take a good hard look at what I truly admire in a friend. They also gave me another much needed lesson in forgiveness, something I’ve been freely given, but have had a harder time giving once we learned of my daughter’s dx. In the words of our ever favorite Elsa, I’ve become quite acquainted with “Let It Go” as sort of a mantra in my life. After autism, much of what we let go in our lives was a blessing and for the best for our family. In some cases though, we were separated from some of our closest friends, but have been so thankful to be reunited with them. I know it’s because of love, because of letting go of the nonsense, and because of their innate goodness and kindness. More on that last quality soon.
MY KIDS’ EXPERIENCES WITH FRIENDS
This part will be a lot more about our daughter’s friend experiences, but I thought it was important to include our son as well. Often the siblings and the effects of autism on them are not addressed. This blog is mostly about how I’ve found my peace through experiences I’ve had amidst our daughter’s autism, so I generally talk more about her. He has been a big part of it all though. We’ve always been pretty in tune with any of our son’s needs and it’s been important to explain things to him along the way, even when he may not understand. He is an important part of her friendship experience, but it’s also important to share the differences in his friendships and hers to drive home a few points.
Let me preface these comparisons by sharing the one thing we have always taught our kids. The one thing that we’ve always emphasized to our children, (from the moment they could understand what it meant) was that the most important thing to be in this world was kind to every single person. Now they are still kids and far from perfect, much like myself, but for the most part, they try to remember and apply that on a daily basis. In a world where society is showing them that the most important thing is to be happy, no matter what the cost to yourself or others, I’d say they have learned that being kind makes you the happiest of all! That being said, not everyone lives by these values.
Our son has made some good friends. He developed pretty typically. Not only that, we call him the social butterfly and the hug mayor around school. He is very friendly and has a personality larger than life. We also call him the comedian of the family, although many of the Giol men find themselves humorous. He makes friends very easily and has made some really great friends over these two years he’s been at the same elementary school with his sister. He has also been his sister’s first and best friend. He is so supportive and protective of her. I’m thankful that he has learned such compassion and that he is so accepting of people’s differences. I am not so secretly hoping he becomes a teacher or some kind of therapist. His social strengths have definitely had a strong and positive impact on his sister’s social life. There’s plenty he doesn’t understand about autism, but he understands the most important thing about it and that is to show kindness.
Our daughter’s friend story is quite different. When she was little, she played alone a lot. Some of that was typical for someone like her, but I believe it also caused her much less social anxiety than trying to play like others or fit in. I remember in Pre-K she started trying to develop friendships. Autism can be a very self focused disorder. She wanted to feel in control and had trouble sharing and things of that sort, but most kids struggle with that at one point or another. She worked really hard to improve her social skills, and with that she learned about feelings, she learned to be empathetic, and learned all about facial expressions. It all helped her to have more courage socially, but it wasn’t until last year in first grade that she really seemed to blossom from a social perspective. I saw her trying to make friends and while she may not have had all the social cues down by then, she was making the effort. She kept kindness at the front of her mind and she didn’t understand if anyone was not being kind to her. Sometimes, it felt like she was blissfully unaware.
Fast forward to second grade and the whole reason why I’m writing this long, drawn out blog post that I am hoping inspires and enlightens you versus possibly boring and puzzling you (see what I did there?). Let’s just say, second grade has been tough. I have been preparing myself for middle school to be challenging, but had no idea that at 8 years old we would be dealing with what we have been lately as far as friendships go. I didn’t know the cliques, the meanness, and the manipulating started happening this young. I can say definitively it didn’t happen when we were kids. We were just interested in playing with everyone at recess and what mom packed for lunch. I’ve witnessed my daughter being on the receiving end of some pretty sad mean girl behaviors recently. It’s almost like it became uncool to be kind and forget it if you’re a tad bit different too. You are just not welcomed in as part of the group. I say girls because quite honestly, and going back to my own personal experiences with women, girls can be downright ugly to other girls. I have to give kudos to the boys because they may have their own challenges among them, but they don’t concern themselves with the drama, they don’t care as much about the silly nonsense and pesky details, and in my daughter’s case, if you like superheroes, you are cool with them. They have just been much more accepting and kind in general. You’d think as girls/women we would have learned to be more compassionate to each other and lift each other up more, with all we have faced in this world and all we have overcome. It’s very disheartening when your kid, who loves school and work in general, starts waking up and dreading school. It broke our hearts this morning when she said she didn’t want to go to school because she didn’t want to be treated badly anymore. It took us most of the morning to convince her to go. There was a lot of crying before she left and a ton more for both mom and dad after she’d gone. At 8 years old, no kid should be feeling that way. My guess is this is happening all over our elementary schools. I like to think we are probably at one of the best, if not the best, school in the county and it happens to our kid. So, it’s not the school, but it seems like it’s what we are teaching our kids and the example we are setting.
In wrapping up this novel, my point is this – We can’t expect our kids to make good friends or be good friends if we aren’t teaching them to be kind first and foremost. Isn’t that the thing that will make them the happiest? We can’t expect our kids to be accepting of differences if we aren’t accepting of them ourselves. If we’re inclusive, they will be inclusive. They follow our example. If we let things go and show forgiveness, our kids will do the same. They can be kind without being doormats. Just because you show people kindness consistently doesn’t meant that you have to be friends with them or have them in your life. Friend is a strong word that is to be valued and to be treasured. In the end, our daughter has made a few wonderful, kind friends. This is just the beginning of her challenges socially, but we will get through it with prayer, love and kindness, and support from our amazing family and friends. So I’ll leave you with some of my husband’s and my favorite quotes that we teach our children and I hope you will share them with yours too. I would also ask that you encourage your kids to see kindness as cool and to reach out to the kids they see getting left out. I guarantee they will feel good about themselves and they will be positively impacting a child’s life and the life of their family.
Have courage and be kind ~ Cinderella
Different Not Less ~ Anonymous
The only way to have a friend is to be one ~ Ralph Waldo Emerson
Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate, only love can do that ~ Martin Luther King
The true measure of a man is how he treats someone who can do him absolutely no good ~ Samuel Johnson
Photography by Courtney Ortiz of Courtney Studios