Let me tell you two stories.
* * * * *
Jesse has a friend named Ben. They don’t really have a whole lot in common, except for both being charming, quirky, and likeable. They like different books and games; they do different after-school activities. But they seem to be genuinely fond of each other.
Ben happens to be on the autism spectrum with some anxiety and maybe ADHD thrown in for good measure. Jesse happens to be on the anxiety spectrum, with OCD and Tourettes thrown in for good measure. Both of these kids have labels, and also some social cuing problems, emotional unevenness, issues with perseverating, and internal dialogues that can be hard for others to follow. Both can have trouble connecting socially at times. None of these challenges and labels are a barrier to their friendship.
We happened to be at a local pool one day with a handful of friends, including Ben’s family. Jesse and Ben wandered off to the water slides together. At some point we observed them at the top of the stairs to the slides, having a conversation we couldn’t hear. Jesse was gesticulating with her hands, leaning in to Ben and speaking intensely. He looked at her seriously. A moment later, they disappeared from view — which means down the slide they went.
That evening, I asked Jesse about what I had observed. This is what she told me, in a nutshell:
A potential crisis developed as the two stood at the bottom of the stairs to the slides, waiting for the possibility of a two-person inner tube. These are in extremely short supply at our watering hole. Two kids came off a slide in a rare two-seater. Jesse and Ben asked if they could have it now. The kids said no. Ben told them in no uncertain terms that it wasn’t fair, and he went on about it. Ben gets stuck sometimes on fairness issues. He knows what the rules are and he thinks everyone should follow them, just like he tries to do.
Oh boy, has Jesse been there. She watched Ben arguing at the kids, and in her heart she agreed with him. She also observed the other kids staring at Ben without speaking, in a way that was unkind. But she didn’t join in the argument. Instead, she got close to Ben and spoke quietly to him. We can go up with just one-person tubes, and then you and I can race down both slides together at the same time. It’ll still be fun.
Ben decided this was a good idea, and they headed up the stairs together. But they were in different spots in the lines as they waited their turns. Ben became very concerned about it, and was headed down the road to being upset. Another glitch in the plan. How would they race if they had to go down the slides at different times?? Oh boy, has Jesse been in that emotional spot herself. She offered Ben a solution: if Jesse got to her turn in line first, she would just let kids pass her until Ben caught up. And he could do the same thing if he got there first. She explained it a couple times until he got it. Problem solved. Fun racing ensued.
As Jesse shared this story with me, I marveled with pride. Jesse had just given me a textbook lesson in empathy. She accepted Ben as he is. She saw his side of things and responded to him from a place of respect. She tried to help him solve the problems that were eating at him, without a single didactic interlude. She didn’t even waste her energy on the kids who were hogging the double tube. She knew instinctively there was nothing to be done there. She paid attention to her friend instead. There were no labels between them – just friendship and open hearts.
* * * * *
Our local state university outlet – University of Wisconsin Milwaukee or UWM – runs a summer program for kids and teens. One of their offerings this year was a course on painting with acrylics, two hours a day for two weeks. Jesse has been busy exploring painting this past year, so she was enthusiastic about the class. On the other hand, we’ve never done any UWM summer classes before, so she was really stressed out about it… which means her obsessions and tics would flare… which created even more stress in her mind as she anticipated the flare… and so on in a vicious cycle. She was pretty much a train wreck on the first day of class, but she hung in there and kept going back.
By the second week of the class, Jesse was clearly getting even more unhinged than usual. She eventually shared with me a bit about her experience, and a sadness creeped over her.
She had made so many screeching sounds on the first day, she told me, that people didn’t want to be near her. Everyone else seemed to know each other, but Jesse had trouble connecting with anyone because of her tics.
I asked if Jesse had tried to explain her behaviors. “Did you tell them about any of your mental health disabilities?”
“No,” Jesse answered firmly. “I didn’t want to.”
One girl in particular really struggled with Jesse. One day this girl was getting upset about her painting — a feeling Jesse is familiar with — so Jesse tried to offer her praise and encouragement. The girl responded sharply, “Stay away from me.”
Jesse snuck a starburst onto her chair one day, as a way to sort of say sorry. The girl snapped when she saw it. “Who put this here??”
Jesse said she did, to which the girl replied gruffly, “I don’t want it!”
Jesse was sitting in my lap as she shared these anecdotes in a dry, sad voice. I buried my face in her neck and staunched my tears. I didn’t know what to say.
“I’m sorry.” It was all I could muster.
“It’s okay,” answered Jesse. “I deserved it.”
There was one girl who actually was a little nice to Jesse. One day Jesse asked her how old she is.
“I’m thirteen,” the young lady responded. “How old are you?”
“I’m twelve,” Jesse replied. She noticed two girls standing nearby listening in. The girls stared at Jesse; they looked meaningfully at each other; they looked meaningfully back at Jesse.
Jesse – being the child of my heart – took that nasty shit on. “Why did you stare at each other like that and then at me? You don’t believe I’m twelve? I am twelve, I’m just really small.”
“No, it’s not that,” one of them answered with a bit of a sneer. “It’s just, if you’re twelve, why do you make noise like that?”
My heart squeezed in pain as Jesse shared this little bit of weird nastiness with me. I hugged her tight and mumbled into her hair. “What did you say?”
Jesse pulled back and looked at me. She shrugged. “I thought yeah, they’re right.”
Later in the evening, after my hurting for my baby girl had subsided, I marveled with sadness. Jesse had given me another textbook lesson in empathy, only it was from the other side. She accepted these mean girls’ reactions to her, even as they refused to accept her in return, refused to make any real effort to comprehend her. She understood their point of view, even though she’s never shared it. She didn’t judge them. She didn’t try to make them see her side. She knew instinctively there was nothing to be done there.
* * * * *
Most kids with behavioral and emotional challenges learn early on that they need to do a better job of understanding how their behaviors impact others. It’s pounded into their heads with emotional jackhammers, by parents, therapists, doctors, counselors, teachers, school administrators, all the adults all the time.
So who’s teaching those lessons to the neurotypical kids? Who says they’re not the broken ones? Where is the mutual empathy and acceptance that kids like Jesse and Ben deserve?