LIFE IS A SPECTRUM / Since We're Friends: An Autism Picture Book

One of a parent's biggest fears for their child with special needs is how other children will react to him. Will he have friends? Will he be bullied? Will he spend a lot of time alone? How do you pave the way for him to create strong bonds with his peers?

Since We're Friends, a children's book by Celeste Shally, beautifully illustrated by David Harrington, is a lovely way to do just that. An unnamed child has a friend named Matt; Matt is autistic and sometimes reacts differently to situations that arise on the playground. Matt's friend helps him understand instructions during games and distracts him when he gets upset. They share many common interests; Matt talks a lot about animals, but his friend doesn't mind because he likes animals too.

We donated a copy of this book to Billy's pre-K class where we're happy to report he has quite a few friends. Ages 3 to 5, his classmates vary widely in their development. We were delighted that he would be in an inclusion class, half of which is normally developing children. Some of the older girls are particularly sweet to Billy, holding his hand during line-up, engaging him on the playground and generally watching out for him. When he started preschool last summer, Billy's social interactions amounted to, at best, "parallel play," playing with toys alongside other kids without really interacting with him. In less than a year, he has started seeking out other kids to play chase, hold hands or share a ball.

As positive an experience as this has been for Billy, I think it's good for normally developing kids to have the experience of interacting with peers of varying abilities as well. Learning patience, compassion and seeing first-hand that someone who is different can still be a fun and beloved friend -- well, I think those lessons are at least as important as reciting the alphabet and counting to 20.

As parents of special needs kids, we often debate how much to talk about our child's challenges. We fear stigma, expect judgment, and desperately want to protect our children. Dave and I went through this same debate, not wanting other parents or kids to assume things about Billy that aren't true: that he's weird or violent or any number of other myths about autism that are widely prevalent. Ultimately, though, we decided the best defense was a good offense, and that we would err on the side of too much information, rather than too little.

The only way to dispel myths is with hearty dose of reality. Books like Since We're Friends are a good place to start.

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