I tried to hide my tears. Maybe everyone at the gym who happened to see my wet face would just think I was really pushing myself on the elliptical. Maybe for the 7:30AM regulars they thought, “Wow! She is actually sweating today!” (unlike most days when “she” jumps off in 15 minutes because the elliptical machine is so freaking boring). Chances are, for most of my fellow morning elliptical users, my red eyes gave me away.
Damn social media. I have such a love-hate relationship with it. I love that we can meet in this little community huddled in our very safe, comfortable corner in the internet universe and share our common concerns, triumphs and general bitch sessions, but, I hate that social media is a regular reminder of how alone my son really is, both in the real world and the social media one. And I hate that I am reminded of that while on the elliptical machine at the gym because that stupid machine is so boring that I have to check Facebook.
I know that sometimes my son makes a conscious decision to be alone. Alone, after all, is easier. However, sometimes I believe he is alone because people, especially teenage people, don’t know what to do with “different” and rather than do the “wrong” thing, they choose not to do anything at all. Most of his fellow classmates adore him. They are kind, caring and genuine, but, they legitimately don’t know what to do after, “Hey Ryan” and neither does he. I don’t fault them, but, I can educate them so that one day they may see that if they try, if they make an effort, then there is no “wrong” thing.
So for you teens out there who might want to be friends with my son, or maybe another teen with autism, here are the only words you need to know to get it “right.” Here are words to friend by:
1. Ask. Ask if he wants to go to the movies (he might). Ask if he likes Star Wars (he doesn’t). Ask if he loves pizza (he does). Ask if he eats frozen yogurt (vanilla only). You need to ask in order to know.
2. Accept. Accept him just like he is. There may be some things he does or he says that may not make sense to you, but, they make sense to him. Accept it. Accept him. And maybe, once again, ask. Ask him why he does what he does, so, then it will make sense to you.
3. Consider. Consider him. Include him. Think of him. If after school or rehearsal or the football game, you are all going for pizza or frozen yogurt, even if it seems he prefers to be alone, we all like to be included, we all like to think, “Wow, they considered me!” “They included me!” “They thought of me!” Even if he chooses not to go, he will remember that you considered him.
4. Educate. Educate yourself about autism, but, educate yourself about him. Inquire why he is so particular about food. Find out why routines are so important to him. Learn why “new” is hard for him. Discover why he loves Hollister tshirts in gray and blue only.
5. Forgive. Like any friend, my son might make a mistake. He might be brutally honest because he doesn’t know any other way to be. If your hair stylist went a little crazy with your latest “do” and it looks, um, bad, he might tell you. It’s not a personal attack and although it may hurt your feelings, he is just being honest because being honest comes naturally to him. The truth might hurt a little, but, honesty is a great quality in a friend (and your hair will grow back).
6. Ask (again). He may have said no every single time you asked him to join you, but, keep asking. One time he might just say yes.
7. Space. If you do ask him, if you do consider him, if you do include him and if he says yes, he may need a little space after a period of time. He will know when he needs that space and when he is ready to join you again.
8. Time. It takes time for him to connect, to trust, so you need to give him some time. If you give him his time, I promise he is so worth yours.
9. Remind. He may need you to remind him about practice, rehearsal or where you are sitting at the football game (repeatedly). If he forgets, again, it’s not personal, it’s not that he doesn’t value your friendship, he just needs another reminder that will help him see that you considered him.
10. Scripting. He loves memes. He loves to say lines from memes, movies and television shows and use them at just the right time, in just the right way. He was basically meme’ing and GIF’ing long before it was cool. He might show YOU a thing or two. But, you have to ask (see #’s 1 and 6) in order to understand.
11. Literal. He is very literal with language, so sometimes slang, sarcasm and abstract language will “go over his head.” If he looks confused or doesn’t respond, when you ask him, “What’s up dude?” explain what you mean in a literal way (“Hey Ryan, what are you doing?”) then he will get it…and you.
12. Notice. If possible, a little notice will increase the likelihood that he will say yes if you do ask and consider. He does much better with advance notice and planning because changing plans is difficult for him.
13. Individual. Remember that he is an individual not a collective disorder. He is Ryan, not autism.
14. Respect. Even after you ask, educate, and consider, you still might not get him, but, please still respect him. Chances are really good that he doesn’t quite get you either, but, he will always, always respect you.
15. Kindness. Just be kind. Period. The end.
Ok fine, it wasn’t the end. Here is one last tip. Just trying to be his friend, even if you don’t get something right, you will never, ever be wrong.
Kate Hooven is a Central PA mom to three children, Kyle, Ryan and Emma. Her middle child, Ryan, was diagnosed with PDD-NOS (Pervasive Develpmental Disorder Not Otherwised Specified, an autism spectrum diagnosis) when he was 6; she stresses that anything she shares online, she does with Ryan’s permission. You can follow Kate here on her Keeping It Real blog; you can also follow her on Facebook, Twitter, and at her website, The AWEnesty of Autism.