Ever since we got back from New Mexico, Elizabeth has been in conflict with her friend Emily. Her best friend Emily. Her BFF, lives-next-door, is-over-at-our-house-all-the-time friend Emily. Her only friend Emily.
Somewhere over the summer, Emily grew up. Emily became a Fourth Grade Girl- that social, talkative, interested in boys and not in dolls stage that is completely appropriate for a 10-year old. A typical 10-year old girl. Not my girl.
My girl still wants to play Barbies (which she just graduated to this year after 6 years of baby dolls). My girl doesn’t understand the joy of “secrets”. My girl still wants her Mama to kiss her goodbye at the school dropoff. My girl who doesn’t know how to follow her friend down this Yellow Brick Road of pre-teen-ishness. My girl who watches her friend say mean things, and then says meaner things back because she doesn’t have the words to explain how she’s feeling. My girl who has been sleeping curled up in the corner of her closet because she’s anxious and the small, warm spot in the closet provides some protection.
It all boiled over this weekend. On Saturday, James moved Elizabeth’s bed into the closet. He took off the doors, and made her bed crammed into the corner. Same level of comfort- but with a mattress under her. Made complete and total sense to us. If she can’t sleep in her bed, her bed can just come to her. But what made sense to us was completely weird to Emily.
Emily had another friend over for a sleepover on Saturday, Mary Margaret. She and Mary Margaret came over while James was moving things around and proceeded to make snippy comments about how that was just weird and “Boy, you can really see how messy your room is now”, and “Where is your mother? Does she know that you’re doing this?” (For the record, I was taking a nap, and yes. Yes, I did) James was livid. Beyond livid. He asked me to go over and talk to Emily’s mother because he was not going to be nice if he did. I planned on going over on Sunday.
Sunday morning, the doorbell rang and it was Emily and Mary Margaret. I’m not sure what I was expecting, but they were all sweetness and light and had come over with the express purpose of inviting Elizabeth over. Elizabeth then invited them to go fishing with us that afternoon. Awww… They went into Elizabeth’s room, and within five minutes, hurt feelings were spilling out all over the place with Elizabeth being disinvited and Elizabeth disinviting right back. The strangest part of the conversation came when I jumped in to calm things down and asked Elizabeth if she realized that Emily wouldn’t be going fishing with us. “Of course, she’s going fishing,” said my teary daughter.
“But you disinvited her”
“So, she might not come.”
“I disinvited her, but she’s going to come”, announced Elizabeth with perfect logic.
Emily looked pouty and I asked her to leave while I cleaned up the mess. After trying to point out action/reaction to Elizabeth, I headed over to Emily’s house.
Where I reminded her mother that Elizabeth is… different. Emotional. Sensitive. On the autism spectrum and in the gifted program, which means that she’s very, very smart, and very, very sensitive. Where she can analyze other people’s language and problems, but not necessarily her own. Where she can’t always find the words, so she will give back what she is given. They had my book, but “forgot” in the rhythm of the days.
We brought Emily in, where I reminded her that Elizabeth is… different. Emotional. Focused. Very, very smart, and very, very sensitive. Where she can analyze other people’s language and problems, but not her own. Where she can’t always find the words, so she will give back what she is given. I did not use the word “autism”. And I had done so at Elizabeth’s request.
For the really horrible part of the whole weekend was talking to Elizabeth. I asked Elizabeth’s permission to talk to her friend and to explain that Elizabeth still has autism. “No, I don’t,” she said. “I did when I was a baby, but it’s all gone now.”
I rocked back at that one. I knew that Elizabeth knew that she had autism. After all, I wrote a book about her- a book that she had given her permission to be published. I didn’t realize that she thought that it had gone away- like a cold. Like outgrowing a bad hair cut.
And so on Saturday night, I got to tell my 9 and-a-half-year old daughter that she still had a label. I framed it in terms of other people’s differences- Emily’s height and Mary Margaret’s braces and Serena’s ethnicity. That there is no such thing as normal. That the way that she dealt with stress was … called “autism”. That her frustration at finding words was… autism. That the way she fixated on things was… autism. That she had learned to cope and that she was managing it quite well and that she was absolutely beautiful and marvelous and smart and I knew how hard it was for her to keep it together sometimes. And that there were other little girls who dealt with those things, too.
“Do they have autism, too?” she asked.
“Lots of them have it more than you do, just as there are children taller than Emily. And there are lots who have it differently than you do, just like Serena’s skin is different than Kaleigh’s skin. And some of them can work with it, just like Mary Margaret’s teeth are getting straighter. And there are some who can’t- but you, lucky you, are one of the ones who has worked with it beautifully. Even on hard days like today. You might still it, but you manage it pretty well.”
“So, do you want me to talk to Emily, so that things can get better?”
“Yes, but don’t tell her.”
And so I talked to Emily about how Elizabeth has struggled with things since she was a baby. How since she was a baby, she has needed to curl up tight. How since she was a baby, she had a hard time finding the words, and sometimes you needed to help her. How since she was a baby, she has been curious and active and fun. How since she was a baby, she would mimic what she saw around her. Which meant that Emily needed to know these things so that she could help Elizabeth. So that she could enjoy Elizabeth’s friendship. So that all of those things that Elizabeth knew, she could share with Emily- she just needed to be asked sometimes.
I was very focused on not making Emily sorry for Elizabeth. I didn’t want that balance of power to tip in Emily’s direction. Elizabeth has a tremendous amount to offer, and I wanted it clear that Emily could enjoy that- and she would lose that if she were to continue in her own actions. That Elizabeth was working really, really hard as well. That friendships are give and take- but you have to understand the other one to make it work.
Emily nodded, and being essentially, a kind child, said “Oh, I love Elizabeth. I can see what you mean.”
And so we all went fishing. And I wish I could say that it all went swimmingly (pun intended), but these are deep waters. Elizabeth got tired from the stress and started whining. Asking for things she wanted in the middle of a conversation that didn’t involve her topics of choice. Oblivious to conversational cues. I could see Emily being frustrated and biting her tongue. We dropped Emily off afterwards and as she went into her house, I wondered if we would be seeing as much of Emily as before.
I cuddled my girl that night in the closet corner and I inquired, lightly, about how things went that day. “Good!’ she said sprightly and started planning her 10th birthday party- six months from now. Emily is, of course, invited.
I don’t know if this went well- if I did the right thing, if they’ll be able to find a friendship or if Elizabeth is getting more and more behind and how much of this is 4th Grade Girl Stuff anyways. I do know that she needs to be aware of the things she needs to work on, while working on her strengths at the same time. She does need to learn awareness of others, awareness of strategies when things get stressful. She needs to know what an amazingly complex and wonderful person she is.
So I went to bed on Sunday night, full of unanswered questions, feeling the lack of path, the quicksand of emotions and friendships. And wanting to curl up in the corner of the closet as well.