Alone in a Crowd

I love (and I mean LOVE) working at the same school where my husband works and children attend. It is one of the super-perks of teaching in the international schools realm.

I can have lunch with my husband nearly every single day. If one of our boys is sick, I can be at the nurse’s office in a moment’s notice to offer cuddles. Mother’s Day celebrations? No problem. A short, one-minute walk across campus. Winter concerts? No need to take off work and drive myself (er, excuse me, I forgot where I am, be driven by a driver) across town to the boys’ school.

While I deeply cherish these opportunities, I have to admit (and I feel deeply selfish and guilty to admit this…) that being in such close proximity to my children at school can hurt.

Let me explain.

My coordinator position is such that I am constantly on the move around campus. One of my principals once called me a “moving target.” With responsibilities in both the Middle School (MS) and High School (HS), I walk back and forth between these two areas of campus multiple times a day, which takes me right by the Elementary playground and into the MS field area.

And between all the students’ breaks, lunches, recesses, outdoor PE classes, etc., there is hardly a day that goes by that I don’t see Gabriel and/or Noah multiple times a day. (Samuel, unfortunately, not so much – I don’t make it over to his part of campus very often).

Make no mistake – the ability to see my boys all the time is wonderful, and I do not take it for granted.  Noah is still young and uninhibited enough that when he sees me, even from far across a field, he will sprint towards me with a massive, excited smile and open arms and bless me with the biggest bear hug he can offer. I used to return the favor by picking him up and spinning him around above my head, but sadly, he’s becoming too big for me to do that without throwing out my 41-year-old back… BUT, I can still return the hug and kiss, and ask him if he’s OK. His usual reply is, “Yes, Mommy! OK! Everything’s OK! Love you!” And then he runs back to his class, and I shoot a grateful “thank you” glance and wave to his understanding teachers, who are always so gracious to allow him to do that, and who usually seem to enjoy witnessing our little bonding moment.

Gabriel, who is a pre-teen, middle schooler now, is much more subtle. He usually just strolls up to me, and we exchange small pleasantries.

  • “Hey babe, how are you?”
  • “I’m good, Mom, everything’s OK.”
  • “OK, good.”
  • “Ok, see you after school Mom.”
  • “Love you.”
  • Side kiss
    • (Meaning, not a kiss on the lips but one of those Arabic-style kisses where you touch cheeks and make a “kiss” noise with your lips).

These are the good times and the good feelings. But sadly, with the good often comes the not-so-good.

What sometimes hurts, is that with the constant access to my children at school, I also have a front-row seat to the social implications that being Autistic has on them.

So I’d estimate that 98% of the times that I see Gabriel and Noah, they are alone.

They are either sitting alone at a picnic table (sometimes even with their heads down on the table), or sitting on a curb at the edge of the field watching the other kids play soccer, or standing alone waiting to enter a classroom – or (and this one kills me) sitting by themselves at a lunch table in a loud and crowded cafeteria.

They are constantly surrounded by other students, so in the physical sense, they are not “alone,” but very little to no interaction is happening with other kids. And this isn’t to say that Gabriel and Noah always look sad when they’re alone – but they don’t necessarily look happy either – they are just kind of existing in that place and time; waiting for the break or lunch to be over so they can return to a more structured environment where they aren’t required to independently socialize 100% of the time.

On any given day, I’ll be heading somewhere, and I’ll see Noah sitting by himself. Then two minutes later, I’m over in MS and I run into Gabriel sitting by himself.

Sometimes I’m ok with it. Sometimes I fight back tears. Sometimes I find myself purposely avoiding the cafeteria during MS lunch, or the ES playground during recess – because on that day, I know I can’t handle seeing it.

It’s like constantly being pinched in the same place; the first time it hurts but isn’t too bad; the second time stings even more, and each time hurts more and more, until you eventually you start to form a bruise – which never seems to go away because you keep getting pinched in the same place.

Oh, how I wish I could form a callus and not a bruise. I wish I could harden my heart against it, or blow it off, but as most parents understand: this is impossible.

And sometimes if I have time and I see one of them alone, I’ll walk over to them and engage them in a quick conversation, just to try and provide them with a small break from their loneliness.

But, a valid question that as been posed to me before (by a couple of highly insightful people), is: “Are your boys really lonely – or, are you feeling lonely for them?”

Is this ALL the fault of Autism? Or, are they sitting by themselves by choice, because they need a break from the overwhelming nature of school itself? Or, is it a combination of the two?

Even though they are Autistic, perhaps they are naturally introverts, and I just can’t see it.

One of the hardest things of being a parent of Autistic children (and, of children with special needs in general) is to try and find the very thin line between where the child’s personality ends and the child’s disability begins – and both of which impact and affect each other – which just makes it even more maddening to try and decipher. And, (going deep here…) maybe they are so intertwined that there’s no line between them at all.

So I don’t know. Maybe they are enjoying the silence and solace. Taking a brain break. I would love to think so.

I also think I have such a hard time with seeing my own children be alone because when I was growing up, my social life was extremely high on my list of priorities. I was never comfortable sitting or being alone at school, and I personally felt very strongly that I needed to be included in things that were happening around me, and if I wasn’t – like if I wasn’t part of a nearby conversation, or if I wasn’t invited to a big party – it deeply bothered me.

So, now, having children that are very different than I was, are my old beliefs so deeply ingrained that I think – because I craved lots of friends and social attention at that age – that my own children must be the same in order to be happy? ­

I now know the answer to that question is unequivocally, “No.” Introverts can be just as happy as extroverts. To each her own. Different is beautiful. Etc, Etc.

So, since I know the logical answer, why do I still become so sad when I see my boys sitting by themselves?   Maybe I’m afraid that they want to be social and have friends (even one friend) but don’t know how to reach out to others.

And – just a quick shout out to the credit of our AISJ community – from what Daniel and I can tell – the boys are not bullied here. They are not outwardly treated badly by their peers, and they DO have kids reach out to them sometimes – so their isolation isn’t completely one-sided. And to be fair, Gabriel and Noah have both, for whatever reasons, been known to be out & out rude to other kids who have tried to talk to them or play with them. Noah, not sure why – but Gabriel has been bullied before in a couple of his former schools, and he has a memory like an elephant, so his motivation for keeping others at a distance might be self-protection. But overall, at AISJ, I don’t think we can really blame other kids for our boys’ isolation.

This is where my boys lack the social skills and confidence they need to be receptive to social opportunities – a clear-cut characteristic of Autism. So professionally, this is where I feel good about how our AISJ Learning Support department is hard at work in trying promote social skills training for all of our kiddos with special needs.

Personally, the Mommy side of me is trying to branch out and create more opportunities for our boys to interact with others.

Noah has had neighbor kids come over and invite him to play before, and he would go outside and not play with them but just “shake” (see blog post #2 for explanation) so understandably, the invites didn’t last. However, I’m hoping the “no shaking in public rule” is helping, because he was recently invited over to a boy’s house for an “official” playdate – the first in a very long time – and not by the parents but by one of his own classmates. (I cried when it happened.)

Gabriel, on the other hand, has yet to ever be invited to, or host, a sleepover, but we’re working on that.

We can’t expect the boys to branch out in isolation, so Daniel and I are learning that we need to do more to scaffold those opportunities.

And I haven’t mentioned much about Samuel because this doesn’t appear to be affecting him yet; his peers are still young enough to include him in play opportunities in spite of his differences. I wish this would last forever.

So, my bruise is there, but I think it’s partially self-inflicted. I know I need to stop projecting my idea of happiness onto them, but I can’t help but still be sad sometimes.

I believe the lessons here that I need to digest and internalize can be found in the heavily clichéd but deeply true Serenity Prayer by Reinhold Niebuhr:

God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference.

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