I was speaking with another parent recently about the difficulty she is having with her twice exceptional 8-year-old. Most of the time he is a sweet, funny kid who likes to make up puns and is obsessed with Lego, Colonial American history and archeology. At the same time, he is prone to frequent meltdowns. When that happens, he may start crying or yelling and will become stubborn and oppositional. When he finally calms down, he is so ashamed of his behavior that he says he is a terrible person and wishes he was never born. This cycle is devastating for both mom and son and has a measurable impact on their whole family. This mom is frightened, overwhelmed and unsure of how to deal with these behaviors. She is also lonely because her friends and family can’t relate to her parenting experiences.
As I listen to this mom, my heart aches for her. Her story is so familiar. So familiar that I could change a few simple details and it would be my story. The deep interests; the obsession with particular subjects; the hair-trigger meltdown that can seemingly come from nowhere, and; the loneliness. Kids like this, with asynchronous development, often have difficulty making and keeping friends. Their interests are too narrow or obscure for other kids to relate to. They are oblivious to social cues, like when a potential playmate is not interested in debating whether Benjamin Franklin should have patented his inventions or in recreating an archeological dig with Lego.
When our kids don’t make friends, it can be a double whammy for us parents – not only are we profoundly sad for them, it can also have a big impact on our social lives. When my first child, who is neurotypical, started at school, I met lots of other families and made lots of friends. I looked forward to seeing other families at school drop-off. We made impromptu play-dates, went out for afterschool snacks, hung out at the playground and we had one other’s back if some got stuck in a late meeting or held up in traffic.
When your kid is 2e, those kinds of relationships don’t always work out. Classmates may not like your child. Or their parents might not like your child or are unwilling to watch them without you present. Sometimes people think you must be a bad parent and that is why your kid is so “weird.” Whatever it is, you are the parent of “that kid” and that can be a social death sentence. I learned this with my son. It was not so obvious when he was in pre-school, but I probably didn’t register the snubs and declines because I was working full time, juggling two kids with different school schedules and I had the friends I had made through my daughter. But once my son got to elementary school, there was no ignoring the difference.
I would drop off my daughter at the schoolyard first and say a warm round of hellos to all my friends as I brought her to line up with her classmates. Then I would go to the spot in the yard where my son’s class lined up. It was a totally different vibe there. All the parents and caregivers would stand around in little clusters talking to one another while their kids played together nearby. None of the other kids wanted to play with my son though. And consequently, I felt like I was invisible to the adults. When I wasn’t trying to help my son socialize, I would try to join in the grownups’ conversations but no one was particularly warm or inviting and none of these relationships ever “took.” There were never any offers to hang out after school, invitations to birthday parties, or even suggestions that we grab a cone together from the nearby ice cream truck. And there was no way I could call on any of these parents if I was going to be late for pick-up. They most certainly did not have my back. I felt these parents had betrayed me and my son.
I wasn’t upset that they didn’t like me. That I could handle. But they didn’t even try to get to know me. Because of my son! My sweet, adorable, brilliant and unpredictable little whirlwind, who I love so passionately it makes my chest ache. How could they be so callous and stingy?
Things finally changed when we moved our son to a smaller school for fourth grade. The new school catered to bright and quirky children like my son. When I met the other parents at pick up, we would all huddle together in little clusters, talking about how hard it was for our kids to make friends. We all shared similar stories of being ostracized, ignored and rebuffed by other parents. If a new parent enrolled their child at the school, we would open up the circle and invite them to join the conversation. There was a little deli next door where we would meet for coffee and after school for snacks. We would plan 30-minute play dates, knowing that low stakes “short and sweet” get-togethers were best. No explanation was necessary if a child suddenly needed to go home because a meltdown was imminent (or in process.) These folks would understand why a parent might quickly intervene when seemingly innocent behavior between kids was getting the slightest bit out of hand.
Having this new, accepting community of parents was life-changing for our son and our family. We were no longer the “odd family out.” There were no more pitying looks from others in the schoolyard. I could finally be honest with my new friends about my struggles (or joys!) with my son without fear of being shunned by them the next time we saw one another. I realized I wasn’t the disaster of a parent I had begun to fear I was. Finding a community where I could find friendship and support from other parents who share a unique bond – that of raising a wonderful, brilliant, sensitive, quirky 2e child – was one of the best things that ever happened to me.
My wish is that all families of 2e kids find their tribe, posse, crew or community. It’s so important to find others with whom you can openly and honestly share your hopes and fears, your struggles and victories, to have a friend who has your back and who knows they can count on you. Whether it be in an actual village or a virtual one, being a part of a community provides hope, friendship, support, and understanding. Where do you turn for community and understanding when you are feeling like life isn’t giving you a break? Please share your experiences and ideas with us! We would love to hear from you!