LIFE IS A SPECTRUM

2011_Billy_party_Madeline_SWING3

Neighborhood. It’s so old-school, right? Most of us probably live in places where there is very little within walking distance. We probably have to drive to school, to the grocery store, to the office.

 

I’m lucky enough to live in an American community in which I can walk my son to school. When I first realized that was possible, I thought it was cool, kind of a novelty. I thought it would potentially be an outlet for all the energy Billy needs to exert before he can settle down in the morning. I thought it would be a great way to talk about things we see, things we plan to do, where we are going.

 

All these things turned out to be true. But I had no idea what I would come to value most about our walks to and from elementary school.

 

High Fives
Every morning, Billy meets Mr. David on his walk to school and gives him a big high-five. Or a small high five. Or he just buries his head in Mr. David’s chest. It depends on his mood. Mr. David is his neighbor, and his hands are up, or his arms are open, depending upon whether Billy needs a high-five or a hug.

 

Santos
Billy used to be dog-phobic. SERIOUSLY dog-phobic. Still is with some dogs. But every Wednesday, we look forward to an encounter with the world’s sweetest and most docile Golden Retriever, Santos, and his owner. Because of this kind, patient neighbor, Billy is no longer completely dog-phobic. Though Chihuahuas still kinda freak him out.

 

Holidays
It helps to be known around the neighborhood if your child is going to Trick or Treat with the opening line of “Look at that Grandma! She’s a witch!” Particularly, if the woman in question is, at most, around the age of 40. It helps to be known if your autistic child decides that one particular house deserves to be Trick-or-Treated five times in a row. If you can act genuinely surprised and delighted the fourth time that autistic Peter Pan tricks and treats your house, you will absolutely be getting a holiday basket from the ‘Feet.

 

Outdoor Safety
Because we walk to school, I’ve had the chance to practice road safety with Billy. He’s learned to “wait at the edge” of the road and look both ways for cars. And when he ignores all my warnings and barrels toward the intersection, Mr. Cedric, the school crossing guard, has a few words with him. Mr. Cedric is one of the kindest, most thoughtful people I know, and he has a personal and encouraging word for Billy every morning. And in the afternoon, if Billy has had a good day, Mr. Cedric is one of the first people to celebrate that fact.

 

Nothing warms my heart more than the moments when the people in my neighborhood help me keep my son from running into traffic. Mr. Cedric is a god in our household. He’s like Santa. All I have to say is, “Billy, this is Mr. Cedric’s sidewalk, and he is watching you,” and immediately, he slows down.

 

Friends
Billy has a few friends he sees only on his walk to school. They’re all neurotypical. Some walk. Some ride bikes or scooters. Many of them call him by name. One truly beautiful big-eyed girl actually makes a point to knock on our door a couple of afternoons a week. She plays Wii with Billy, helps me feed the fish, chats about her school day, and generally renews my faith in the human race.

 

I’ll be honest with you: There are moments when I think it would be easier to NOT be out “in the neighborhood.” It would be a lot easier to pick Billy up and drop him off by car, because every moment and encounter is not positive.

 

But my neighborhood has shown me how understanding a community can be. And not just understanding, but also rewarding to both me and my son. If I do my job correctly, then he’ll be as independent as is possible for him; he’ll have to be comfortable interacting with the world around him.

 

I can only hope that he’s lucky enough to live in a neighborhood like ours.

 

Reader Comments

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It is special to live in that kind of neighborhood. But even more importantly - how nice that you take the time out to walk your son to school. I did the same thing with my son, even though every other child his age walked by himself.

We had some special moments, that I treasure to this day.

Good to see you back!

This is so much like Goldilocks' walk to school. And he too finds small dogs more frightening than larger ones. I think it's a sensory issue—all that yapping hurts my ears, too.

I love this post, Amanda! How fortunate you are to live in such a great neighbourhood!

Have a wonderful Christmas!

Hugs,
Wendy

Chihuahuas freak me out, too.

That sounds so amazing. That's a lot of holiday baskets, though. I guess that's the one bright side of living next door to Mr. Meth Head instead of Mr. Cedric. ;)

What an incredible testimony to everyone you mentioned in this post. Our neighborhood is kind of the opposite - our houses are so far apart that there's not much dropping in and visiting - the school is definitely not a walkable distance away. What a gift that you have an arrangement that works so well for you and Billy --- I have a feeling all of those people (and canines) you discuss are getting as much out of the deal as you are. Thank you for sharing all of this.

Total 5 comments

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.

Reader Comments

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