Social service agencies have a good read on my 16-year-old son Alex. Somewhere in the photocopied, crooked lines of one of his service plans, for instance, is the line, “Alex Stimpson doesn’t have a best friend.”
Alex does make connections. He does ask for his little brother Ned, for his daddy and mommy, for Aunt Julie and for grandpa’s lake house. In that house, Alex can glance at most of his loved ones in one convenient corral and then go back to the iPad until it’s time for his drive to Michaels.
We headed to the lake house last July Fourth. Ned brought a friend to go swimming in the lake; also canoeing in the lake and tipping over the canoe followed by more swimming in the lake. Aunt Julie brought a friend, Carl. Carl comes for many Independence Days. Ned also likes Carl very much as Carl lives in the South and usually brings explosives.
Alex notices fireworks. This year, though, he seemed edgy, refusing to sit on the rough wood of the dock and continuing to tug me and my wife Jill back to the house. In the glow of Carl’s explosives, Alex’s face is sharp and attentive; his eyes catch the sparkles and bursts against the summer night sky. Later, I’ll post a photo of Alex on Twitter. Still later I’ll realize that we forgot to make Alex’s hot dogs for dinner at the lake house and he was probably just hungry and crabby – and he never told us.
In the picture, he looks like an otherwise neurotypical teen who just happens to rarely speak sentences. You need sentences to get by in this world. You need sentences to make friends.
“Autistic individuals typically have problems interacting in normal social environments. This leads some parents and professionals to think that they are naturally antisocial,” reads the abstract of “Six Principles of Autistic Interaction” (www.jamesmw.com/sixrules.htm) by James Williams, a Chicago-area writer with high-functioning autism.
I wouldn’t call Alex antisocial. More like social in a skewed way. He always seems to speak someone’s name more when he’s not with that person, as if disregarding whoever he’s with and already looking forward to the next, different person he’ll see.
“Aunt Julie!” he says on a Wednesday night. “See Aunt Julie!”
“We can’t see Aunt Julie tonight, Alex. Maybe this weekend.”
“Tomorrow Aunt Julie!”
When school’s out, he often speaks the names of classmates, usually preceded by “Bye bye!” or “Have a good weekend!” “Bye, Ju-ann. Bye, Eloran” he says over a video of kids and a school bus; his finger touches the picture of the boy boarding the bus. “Bye, Eloran.” Alex stresses the bye, puts a spin on the word as if to say, There. I took care of that.
Is this part of Alex truly having friends? Part of him arranging classmates in his memory the way he lines up little plastic animals and figures on all the furniture? Or just part of his general unraveling during school breaks?
When neighbors’ kids in our apartment building drop by to see Ned, Alex stays nearby, bobbing and weaving to some song on his iPad. If one of the visitors is a girl and it’s around Alex’s bath time, I nonchalantly position myself near the bathroom door to make sure Alex doesn’t fling it open stark naked (not generally a way to initiate friendships).
Much of his behavior does acknowledge that he lives in a world with people. If something goes wrong in our home – a spat, a stubbed toe – Alex lunges forward to pat your arm (sometimes a little hard) and pat and pat and say, “I’m sorry” even when the mishap isn’t his fault. He names his plastic figures after friends and family. (I’m a hunky green post-apocalyptic action figure. Ned’s a boy ion a straw hat, holding a pole and a fish. Jill is a princess with a low-cut gown.)
If Jill asks Alex to dance and share his music, he will, for a moment, then pick up his iPad and wordlessly disappear into his bedroom.
All for interacting, he seems to say, to a limit.
“Non-autistic people often forget how complex social skills are, and how long it takes to learn them,” reads a friendship primer on the site Autism Helps (www.autism-help.org/communication-autism-making-friends.htm). Skills to make friends include knowing how to enter into other children’s activities or how to welcome other children into games or activities, and recognizing when and how to help others and seeking help from others.
“Autistic individuals, if allowed to interact with other autistic individuals, develop complex friendships that are based on social rules that are unique to autistic relationships,” Williams writes. “When two autistic people who are fit for each other interact, there typically are several principles they use when socializing.”
At a New Year’s Eve party a while back, Alex met Eric, who is also solidly on the spectrum. Alex had been weaving person to person, displaying his pretzels, snapping the rubber bands of paper hats under the chins of guests both willing and unwilling, heaping chips on flimsy plates and scanning the kitchen for a back door to bolt through. Eric and Alex last met as toddlers.
When Eric arrived, Alex paused like a typical teen spotting an expensive hoodie of his favorite football team. He looked into Eric’s face and touched his arm. They separated quickly but I don’t often see such socializing principals, such spark of connection between Alex and strangers. Maybe Eric reminded Alex of a classmate? Bye, Eric, bye…
“Their impaired ability to perceive and respond in socially expected ways to nonverbal cues can lead to conflict or being ignored by others,” adds Autism Helps.
“Maybe you can take Alex to the Mac store,” we tell Tina (not her real name). “He can teach people how to use iPads.” She’s one of the adult companions Jill and I hired to watch him and keep him company when we’re working.
Alex always asks for his companions by his name for them, which is also his way of asking when he’ll see them again. Tomorrow Tina! Tomorrow Tina and Michael’s. He seems to look forward to seeing these people, maybe because with them Alex is never something he seems to be with many people. Alone.
Jeff Stimpson’s two books are “Alex: The Fathering of a Preemie” and “Alex the Boy: Episodes From a Family’s Life With Autism.” Visit his blog at jeffslife.tripod.com/alextheboy. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter at @jeffslife.