“A day without a friend is like a pot without a single drop of honey.”~Winnie the Pooh
This quote…it gets me every time. And here is why:
Braden has never had a friend.
Don’t get me wrong. Braden has many people who love him (including family and friends who are like family), and throughout his life, he has interacted with others, kids have been very sweet to him, and he has even been invited to one or two birthday parties. But a friend? A true friend?…Nope.
As many of you know, this year my school started a new program for kids with intensive learning needs. Most international schools do not open their doors to students with these needs, so this is a relatively new phenomenon in our schools. In fact, back when we taught in Shanghai, we had no such program at our school. Braden was not part of our school, but there was one teacher, David Chaveriet, who made him part of his classroom. He invited Braden in once or more per week so
kids could get to know him. Our home-school teacher at that time, Barbara Poppell, met with kids and taught them how to play with Braden. It was beautiful, and I know that even though our son never said so, he loved those times. Of course those times were relegated to school, but were happy with what we got!
Last May, to help prepare our middle school students for the arrival of our new kiddos, I gave a talk to each grade level (5th-8th) about raising Braden. The kids didn’t know why I was sharing about him, but I had it carefully planned out. I showed pictures of Braden growing up doing all the things he loves…swimming, snow skiing, rollerblading, climbing trees, etc. While I showed them each picture, I asked them to put a thumb up if they liked doing those same things. When I was finished, I asked them, “Based on these pictures, how many of you think he could be your good friend?” Many raised their hands with the innocent and eager smiles that only kids can have. Then I told them this…
“Braden has autism. Do any of you know what that is?” Smiles fell. Many did not know what autism was, but they knew that it must be something.
I went on to explain autism…the definition…the statistics. I told them all about how awesome autism can be and how there are many famous people who have done great things for our world who also happened to be on the spectrum.
I told them about all of the good things Braden has brought to our lives…how he got Mike interested in podcasting and me interested in teaching children with special needs…how, because he is so active, we stay active…how he can make us smile by accomplishing something others would consider to be a simple task, like putting together a puzzle or playing a Wii game by himself.
Then I shared how it can sometimes be difficult…how people judged and stared…how we’ve been kicked out of various places because he was too noisy; restaurants, bowling alleys, water slide parks, and even a children’s library.
I assured them that autism isn’t contagious.
My next slide was the Winnie the Pooh quote. “A day without a friend is like a pot without a single drop of honey.” And this is when I got choked up. I explained to the kids that the hardest part of autism, for me, was knowing that my son has never had a real friend. “When you are happy, your parents are happy. And when they see you playing with your friends, there is no better feeling in the world,” I explained to the students.
Afterward, I shared that although this is our experience, it doesn’t have to be that way for other families like mine. I introduced that we would be starting a new program at our school in August and kids would be coming in with special needs. I went on to say that they may notice some behaviors that might appear different to them, but that student would still appreciate having a friend…”So please reach out to them…invite them to your birthday party…ask them to sit with you at lunch…join Best Buddies.”
The talk ended shortly after that. After each talk, I generally had 2-3 kids come up to me to tell me about their cousin or friend with a disability. Others wanted to see if they could come and volunteer in the classroom. They were all so incredibly sweet.
Then, a 7th-grade boy approached me. He seemed a bit nervous. He told me he’d like to volunteer to make some audio books for the kids.
“Great, thanks so much for that, Tim.”
“Sure. And, um…Mrs. Boll? You said your son Braden has no friends?”
“Yes, that’s right,” I answered as I was distractedly gathering up my things to rush off to my next class.
“Well, um…I could be Braden’s friend. I would really like that.”
I can’t explain the feelings that swept through me at that moment in time, but I was so incredibly touched. I think this was the most beautiful sentence I’ve ever heard…”I could be Braden’s friend.”
I looked at him in stunned silence.
He went on to say, “We have a lot in common. I think it would be fun to go swimming with him.”
The end of the year came and went. August happened, and Tim has approached Mike at school to set up a time for him and Braden to get together. This boy is serious! And we couldn’t be more excited and grateful. We will be setting up our first ‘hang out” soon.
Two weeks ago, the school counselor and I did a similar session in a 3rd grade classroom for one of our students. We did not use a label when describing him (as per parents’ wishes). Instead, we showed pictures of this boy doing things all the other students love doing as well. This is all loosely based on the Circle of Friends model. We talked about what they have common, and we had them share what they thought was a little different about him. The kids in his class were amazing and in the end, they all wanted to be a part of this boy’s circle of friends.
At the end of this session, a boy raised his hand. He said, “I really liked Sam (name changed for confidentiality purposes) because he was different. But then you showed us all of the pictures of him doing what I liked to do, and I realized that we actually have more in common than we have different. Now I want to be his friend even more.”
It was like I had written a script of what I had hoped would happen from our Circle of Friends. Since then, this boy, Sam, has been invited to a birthday party, and has been asked to come over to another friend’s house to play.
My heart…it’s so happy for Sam…and for Braden…and Tim…and for all the kids who want to reach out to kids who, although different than themselves in one way, are so similar in others.
Thanks, Winnie the Pooh, for your simple message. Everyone needs a friend…and now I know two boys who will have one!