Are there people like these in your sphere? People you are polite to, but have never really gotten to know? Or that your teen is kind to, but not really friends with? If so, I hope that the isolation this pandemic has brought will help you reflect on ways to extend your social connection to them.
By Kelly Henry
Adam (name and details changed for privacy) was a high school junior when I met him. He was a fine clarinet player, an exceptional dancer, and loved the natural world. He also had an autism spectrum diagnosis. Each day after band practice when I drove up to fetch my son, I’d see Adam waiting apart from the other kids. Adam was often playing hacky sack, but never with the group. I’d see him on Facebook often. He’d have a picture with this kid or that, always just him and one or two others. I’ve come to realize he was creating these images…inviting others to take a picture with him. It helped to curate an online image that he was part of things, if only for himself. But Adam was acutely aware that he didn’t have any “real” friends. He had spent his senior trip crying in a hotel room because he knew he was not really part of things. He didn’t know how to be socially. And the kids who were part of things didn’t really know how to make him part of things either. It wasn’t anyone’s fault, really. No one was trying to be mean or hurt him.
Mason was in 5th grade when I met him. He’s now a sophomore in high school. Mason loves rap music. He is creative and gregarious. He plays the violin and the guitar. He tried his hand at wrestling. He’s learning Japanese and has a green belt in Karate. He loves Jesus. He is also legally blind and has an autism spectrum diagnosis. Mason is extraverted enough to reach out to people. He often tries to connect with kids over potentially shared interests. His efforts are sweet, but often perceived as socially “off.” He hasn’t been invited to a high school friend’s house in the past two years. When he decided to quit wrestling because he knew he wasn’t really part of the team, the coach said, “Well, I’ve been expecting this,” almost with some relief. No one is intentionally trying to harm him, but he doesn’t really have any friends at his school in spite of his willingness to extend himself. No one knows how to make him part of things. It’s not anyone’s fault, it just is.
Connor weighed just over 2 pounds when I met him. That was at birth. I’m his mom. He has perfect pitch and loves music. He is an excellent euphonium player and has numerous awards to prove it. He’s a member of National Honor Society. He is a fine writer who loves word play. He’s a proficient swimmer, and enjoys taking walks. He draws well, and loves epic fantasy stories like Star Wars, Lord of the Rings, and The Matrix. There is no one kinder than Connor. He also has an autism spectrum diagnosis with ADHD. He is an old soul. He wishes he was born in a different time where things were more formal and roles were more prescribed. It would be easier to predict people if that were the case. He always seems to say things in an unusual (read: wrong) way, and his peers don’t really know how to respond to him. He’s now a senior in high school, and has never been invited to a party by peers at school that wasn’t hosted by his own family, unless it was a band party where the invitation went out to the whole section. He tried to piggy back on a group of kids going to homecoming one year. The kids he asked to join indicated they weren’t going. I saw their pictures on Facebook. They went.
Truth is, he probably wouldn’t have had a great time. Loud music and large groups aren’t a scene he is comfortable with. And I am absolutely certain those kids didn’t intend unkindness. They wanted to let him down easy. It’s not anyone’s fault. He’s no good in the spaces they like, and they don’t know how to join him in his spaces.
Welcome to our quarantine.
I’ve seen posts from the fellow senior moms, high school teachers and coaches that lament the loss of the senior year milestones. I’ve gotta tell you….I have been dreading those. Not because they are a sad goodbye to the golden years of high school, but because they just punctuate the quarantine that has been the high school experience for us. And that, friends, has been very, very painful.
I know the rest of us really do miss the normal life activities. Maybe it is soccer or swimming. Maybe it is music festival or a senior night. Maybe prom or graduation. Maybe it is just being able to hang out at a friends’ home. I get it. I have a couple of neurotypical kids, myself. They are missing out.
They are now experiencing the same quarantine that the teen with autism experiences daily.
Parents now feel disappointment that their kiddo doesn’t get to shine at graduation, awards night or at a cancelled state competition. It’s not really anyone’s fault. No one did this on purpose or wants to be mean. But we are all sidelined from life right now. Welcome to the quarantine we’ve been living with every day since middle school, when it was no longer socially acceptable to schedule a play date for your kid.
I see the posts and signs that we are “in this together.” Right now, yes, we are all in quarantine together. The difference is, that when COVID-19 passes, you and yours will have the option to return to life. My hope is that this period has given you a tiny taste of the grief that comes with being sidelined from life through nobody’s fault. I pray that you might consider looking at the young adult you are raising, and encourage them towards inclusion. Not because it will look great on a college application, but because humans like Adam, Mason, and Connor have something to offer. But if your very nice kids don’t learn to make space for them in the world, you won’t ever know what that something is.
While we experience physical distancing during the pandemic, many of us remain connected. We text and call each other. We post and tag each other. Physical distancing is not inherently social distancing. What the Adams, Masons, and Connors experience is true social distancing.
Are there people like these in your sphere? People you are polite to, but have never really gotten to know? Or that your teen is kind to, but not really friends with? If so, I hope that the isolation this pandemic has brought will help you reflect on ways to extend your social connection to them. Maybe right now. I bet a text checking in would be welcome. It likely is the only one they’ve gotten.
And when the pandemic passes, you can have a conversation with your teen or young adult or yourself about what true inclusion looks like.
The modern version of inclusion means people with different abilities are allowed to participate in activities alongside us. That works well for administratively driven programs: Yes! Your special-needs kid can be in the band. Yes! She can be in the robotics club. Yes! Join the wrestling team!
But the social glue that forms friendships is built in the activities that spin out of those organizations. The band kids went to IHOP after the ball game. The robotics kids had a game night at someone’s house. The wrestling team went to a movie together. These activities are self-organized by the teens, and are the spaces that contribute to the painful quarantine of autism. Maybe, you could nudge your own teen to include the lonely in some of these spaces? It will be awkward initially. But I promise you, it gets better. And the fabric of the community around you and the young adult you are raising will be more diverse in the best of ways.
Welcome to our quarantine. I’m sorry you had to join us, but it honestly is nice to have some company. It feels less alone. I hope that we’ll get to leave quarantine, too. Maybe you can be part of that.
Kelly Henry is a social-organizational psychologist at Missouri Western State University where she teaches about group dynamics and social influence. She has been married to Kirk for 22 years, and they are raising three lovely humans: Connor (18), Molly (13), and Collin (9). She writes this narrative about the experience of raising a person with autism with the permission of all the boys in the essay. She and her family reside in Kansas City, Missouri.