All parents want their children to have friends and companions - buddies who support them and love them. Few things tug at parents' heartstrings more than believing their child is lonely. I have experienced that heartache. I have watched when Frankie has tried to be part of group and has been rejected or purposely snubbed. I have also watched in anguish when Frankie behaved oddly or inappropriately, and other children moved away from him.
So I have experienced emotions similar to Adam's and Kristina's in this episode in watching Frankie try to navigate his social world. I have also found myself angry with friends who are the parents of children who have rebuffed Frankie. I want the parents to "make" their children understand better the difficulties that Frankie is experiencing. I have wanted the parents to tell me all about any difficulties so that I can run interference for Frankie, and I have been angry when I have perceived them as withholding information. So I have been there, done that.
A few thoughts occur to me about the situation between Max and Jabbar and their parents. Boys have disagreements, and sometimes there are physical fights. This isn't the exclusive purview of children with ASD of course and has been going on long before there was lunch at school or recess. Also in thinking about the situation, it occurs to me that both boys are being put in social situations that they have not learned to navigate; they need help to do so. The adults in this situation seem to do little to offer help to either boy, and Crosby - in his solitary efforts to be helpful - makes things even worse.
Max's parents should be sharing with him more clearly the nature of his "troubles," as Frankie calls his ASD symptoms. He does seem to know that he needs to "look others in the eye" and that he should "keep his promises." But he should also be told that most people don't have problems with looking others in the eye and that not everyone understands "the rules" in the same way he does. Max may have trouble absorbing this, but if he at least can have a brief reflection of "Is this my autism?" then he could really start to free himself from some of his social difficulties.
Jabbar too needs to have words like "troubles" or "autism" to understand what is different about Max - so that he can tell Max, "You are being too autistic" and explain to other friends why he may need to spend more time with Max, or help Max, or work harder to accommodate Max. This might help Jabbar's friends do the same. In this manner, Max becomes a kid who is "one of us with some differences" and not "someone who isn't like us and needs to be excluded."
Finally, all kids (and, at times, adults) are going to make mistakes. Max made a mistake in being too rigid and by essentially bullying Jabbar. Jabbar made a mistake by not taking more time to explain that he didn't want to always eat with Max and by not asking for a change "in the rules." All of the parents made a mistake by not being more open and honest with each other and with each child about the nature of the difficulties they were facing.
When Frankie was about 10, and I was complaining of a situation involving Frankie that was similar to the one in this episode, a friend (and parent of an adult child with autism) said to me, "You know, Frankie has the same right to make a mistake that every other kid has." At first I was angry, but then I was able to step back and understand that what she was saying is that kids need to learn, including Frankie, and sometimes the best way to learn is by making a mistake and learning a way of doing it better the next time. I have used this as one of the guiding principles for my parenting. It is always helpful in clarifying the options related to a situation.
This episode presents a wonderful teaching opportunity for Max, Jabbar, the school and all the adults. I can only hope they are able to take the opportunity presented.
Written by Roy Sanders, M.D.