Teacher Professor

September 13, 2010

Reminding Emily… and Elizabeth

Filed under: Autism — Teacher Professor @ 12:00 pm

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”

“Uh huh.” 

“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.


  1. Oh man, this one got me hard. These are such treacherous waters for girls – typical or otherwise. Adding in the challenges that our sweet babies face makes it so much more difficult.

    You handled it beautifully – with grace and sensitivity and an obvious respect for your daughter.

    Rooting you both on from here – ‘all while completely understanding your desire to curl up in the closet. Me too.

    Comment by Jess — September 13, 2010 @ 4:34 pm | Reply

    • Closets are highly underrated as therapy strategies…

      Comment by profmother — September 13, 2010 @ 8:52 pm | Reply

  2. You’re all going to hate me for this, but, one of these days these kids are going to tell all you well meaning adults to “go to hell!”.

    I was a difficult child and everyone around me had an analysis or a comment or a solution, and I’m still difficult. Ask my husband. I met enough other “difficult” kids over the years, that we shared our “safety in numbers”, and we all became amused at some point at everyone’s agonizing over our “differentness”. Yes, we offended the compliant members of our young population who were often perplexed at our non-conformist ways that seemed so deliberate. My mother and dad thought that I had devious intentions. So did my teachers. But I didn’t. I simply acted impulsively before considering the inevitable outcome. You can’t believe how many years and decades it has taken me to become consciously aware of this hurtful habit, and my progress has often been one step forward and two steps back. Each year I am more aware of the need to stop before I act or speak, and am becoming more comfortable and relaxed with the discipline. It has fostered my respect for others that I resisted in my youthful years. I have enjoyed seeing my insecurities melt away. That has been a huge relief. Giving my life to Christ at age 44 was the turning point that gave me a foundation to stand on, relating to my treatment of others. I now had new guidelines presented in what the Bible calls “being transformed”. I wasn’t an overnight sensation. I’m still in the process of being transformed.

    Learning to forgive others for offenses real or imagined, according to Scripture, and growing in faith that the God who loves us is able to empower us to love others with His heart, has been the remedy that my parents and friends had longed to see me discover. My parents never believed the biblical Gospel of Salvation, but were nevertheless grateful to see the changes in my life. They were both disappointed and confounded that I had become “one of those” — a Bible believing Christian looking for Jesus literal return at the appointed time. A nutcase in other words. But at least I’d become pleasant to be around. Gradually, I was no longer offensive and argumentative, but peaceful and tolerant and looking for ways to be helpful. Stunning. I was expected to leave my religion at home and resist any impulse to give Jesus the credit for my transformation when around them or their friends. I honored their wishes. My parents have passed away, but my younger sister, an agnostic (or atheist, really), gives me lectures periodically from her point of view. Not because of any topic of a religious nature that I have brought up, because I haven’t, but just out of self-defense. I’m okay with it. It’s the same with my brother. Religious talk really makes people uncomfortable. They know where I stand, so there’s no need for me to say any more. The irony in all this is that I’m still different, still considered outside the “norm”. I chuckle, because the norm changes with every generation.

    I’m proud of Elizabeth for her honesty. She has a very tender and forgiving heart. She disinvites Emily because it fits the “protocol” template of the moment, but then she’s also quick to forgive Emily and snatch her needed friendship back into the “normal” pattern of her life. Kudos! God loves that! Jesus commanded his rowdy bunch of disciples to forgive seventy times seven. They were stumped, they were nearly speechless. But Jesus helped them understand that God’s way for us is different from “our way for us.” Therein lies true peace. Only by the grace of God can we grasp that and humble ourselves, stop our striving, relax our personal rules for the world around us, and enter His rest. Yaayy! Elizabeth is well on her way to walking this path! Pray that the prince of darkness doesn’t derail her in her life.

    Peter, too, is proud of his granddaughter. He’s one of those abnormal Jesus-believing weirdos like me. Viva la difference!

    Claire Goldrick Hughes

    Comment by Claire Goldrick Hughes — September 16, 2010 @ 2:56 pm | Reply

  3. And when she does tell me to “go to hell”, I can rest contented knowing that I’ve taught her self-advocacy and independence and strength. “Go to hell” is a very powerful place to be!

    You should consider a blog, too! You certainly have something to say… 🙂

    I will pass on your pride in her… hugs to you both.

    Comment by profmother — September 16, 2010 @ 3:41 pm | Reply

  4. Hi there I’m a new Single mom browsing the web for some good blog and I find your blog very interesting. Bookmarking your blog now. Thanks

    Comment by daneliot — September 22, 2010 @ 3:27 am | Reply

  5. […] this past Sunday night, Emily was off-again, in their lightbulb friendship, and Mary Margaret, a new friend that Elizabeth’s been hanging out with, was unavailable, […]

    Pingback by The End of Forever « Professor Mother Blog — January 18, 2011 @ 11:04 am | Reply

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