walrus school
20 July 2002
"How was school today, Damian?"

"School was good."

"Did anything interesting happen at school?"


"Can you tell me about it?

"I made a funny joke."

"That’s great." Wow. "What was the joke?"

"It was a walrus joke."

"A walrus joke?"

"I was spitting walrus food across the table and they laughed."

"Who laughed?"

"Everybody laughed."

Okay, first of all, Damian talking to me about his day? This is only the second time it’s happened. (The first was the day before.)

And then there’s the content, what he actually said. Dan filled me in on the details, as told by two teaching assistants: All the children sat at the rectangle table for snack time. Damian munched on pretzel sticks. He declared he was a walrus eating walrus food. Then he made a spitting/Bronx cheer noise, pretending to spit the pretzels out (his mouth was empty). The kids all laughed.

The kids all laughed. This bears repeating.

Then another boy, Corey, joined the game. He spit real pretzels across the table, so Damian did too. Everyone laughed some more.

The entire table full of children – eight in all – laughed together at my son’s goofy, childish physical humor. And Damian was immensely proud of himself. So proud he told me all about it. So proud he told the whole class right then, as they were laughing: "I made a joke."

Pinch me, I must be dreaming. My shy, overwhelmed little guy the social butterfly, the silly center of the classroom scene?

And Corey, the other kid who joined the fun? We get reports nearly every day that the two boys had fun together in the yard. They actually play interactively. My favorite was one incident last week: Armed with spray bottles, the children were all having a great time in the grass yard. Lexie told me that she was busy with another boy when Damian raced past her, chasing Corey, squirting water and shouting, "I’m gonna get you!"

I’ve been waiting for this for a very long time. Since well before his diagnosis, when I’d bring him over to Melissa and Terri’s house and watch as the other kids played around and among and, yes, with each other. And they were all at least six months younger than my boy with his angel face and dark hair, my boy who played off in the corner, who stood silent when a child approached, who turned away and retreated as quickly as possible.

It makes sense that the social ease would come later than everything else. He needed language and more confidence in his ability to navigate the sensory world. He needed to learn to play with adults before he could tackle children. He needed the skills he now has to build the foundation for this new step. But oh, what a relief it is.

The class itself has something to do with it, too. Back in January I was near tears thinking about his then-current placement in the Mixed class with at least three children who were frighteningly low functioning. I say frighteningly advisedly. They’re not scary kids in and of themselves. But for a too-sensitive child like Damian? To be around kids with no impulse control, kids who will barrel into you or punch you in the chest with no warning and for no reason, and who can’t even say I’m sorry afterwards? Terrifying. If it weren’t for Damian’s relationship with the various therapists there and the promise of an eventual placement in the Jumpstart class, we would have pulled him out of the school.

Ironically, though, that class may have been the best thing for him. Dan calls it immersion therapy. Confront that which most frightens you, in this case, kids who are so out of control you can’t predict or avoid their actions. Learn that the worst isn’t so very bad after all, and in comparison, everything else is a breeze. This combined with the hour a day Damian spent in the typical class, participating in structured group activities and staying on the sidelines the rest of the time – but inevitably watching and learning and soaking in how children play with each other, how they argue and struggle and cooperate and enjoy. The two extremes, neither of which were really suited for Damian, but together may have taught him the skills he so desperately needed.

As of this month he’s in finally in that Jumpstart class, the pot of gold at the end of the scholastic rainbow. And everything’s different. He glows at the end of the school day. He plays with the other children during class. He’s even forming a friendship or two. What’s more, for the first time, he talks about his day. Yesterday afternoon, he said "I’m going to go to school tomorrow," and got angry when I said that tomorrow was Saturday and there was no school.

It’s not as easy as that, of course. He didn’t just wake up Monday July 8th and say, "I like other kids now, Mom, I’m ready to go play with them." He gets tearful when we leave him in class in the morning, which hasn’t happened since he first started at the school. He may be interactive during outside play; the running and jumping and swinging rev him up and get his juices flowing. But when the kids are playing quietly in the classroom, Damian still hesitates, still sometimes needs prompts, still sometimes withdraws. It’s all so new. Kids who talk back, what a concept.

But he’s getting it, more and more each day. These children are like him. They’re not typical kids who overwhelm with their better social skills and therefore higher expectations. They’re not low functioning kids who overwhelm with their unpredictability and unresponsiveness. They’re all near his ability level, these classmates. I suspect that’s immensely reassuring. He’s found true peers, kids who laugh when he pretends to blow whale food out his nose. It’s got to teach him that he can be comfortable with other children, that he can hold his own. That it’s okay to be who he is, he’s not the only one.

It’s the curse of this disorder, the isolation. It’s the one thing I think can stand between a high functioning child and happiness as an adult. I don’t care if Damian grows up with assorted tics and quirks, I just care that he’s able to enjoy friendships and, yes, love. This is the open wound in every parent’s heart, every parent with a child on the spectrum. Will our child be able to form real relationships? When we die, will we leave him alone, completely and forevermore? The past few months, starting with Damian’s romp on the bed with Sophia at the end of March, we’ve been seeing more and more hints that this chilling future isn’t his, that the seemingly impenetrable wall of ice that kept him apart from other kids is melting in a pool of laughter.

And with that, something inside me eases. I don’t think the worry is over, not by a long shot. But the midnight fears of a bleak future for our so-loved little boy, those can subside, melting too in a puddle of pride and delight. We can look forward, I think, to sleepovers and silly boy games and plenty of arguments punctuated with "you’re not my friend anymore!" and "I hate you!"s. I look forward to every minute of it because it means he’ll be all right, it means he’ll never have to be alone. It means everything.

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copyright 2002 Tamar