I Would Give Anything

I would give anything for my daughter to be able to go to school and have friends.

It’s not that she doesn’t go to school; she is in grade three. More to the point, she has no friends. Well, none that she can reliably count on to greet her in the morning or be happy to see her or to play with on a daily basis.

All the other kids seem to have their little pairs and groups of friends, while she has none.

She is a very likable child – there is not an adult that she has ever met who has had anything negative to say about her personality and her sweetness and her manners. She’s kind, and gentle, and caring to a fault. She’s funny and friendly and loving.

But her peers don’t seem to notice. They have studiously avoided becoming friends with her for four years now.

So what’s wrong with my kid?

She’s neuro-atypical, in that she’s a little delayed in her intellectual development. It used to be, years ago, we called these kids “slow learners”. Around here, we call her a “late bloomer”. She’s going to get there, eventually; just in her own time and her own way.

Not that anyone has noticed, socially, as she’s pleasant and social and funny. But when it comes to schoolwork, you really do. And maybe that’s where the other kids are leaving her behind. Maybe she’s been branded “slow” or “stupid” or “babylike” by her peers.

I wish I knew. It’s not like you can go into a room full of eight-year-olds and ask, “Hey, why don’t you like my kid?”

But all I know is that they have, as a group, avoided befriending her and accepting her into their social network. Something has twigged with them and they, like other packs of beings before them, have singled her out as different.

At least in some herds of animals, they circle around the weakest to protect them. Not so, apparently, with eight-year-olds.

And if she were differently neuro-atypical, it might not matter so much. She might not notice, or care, that she’s spending a lot of time in the schoolyard playing and standing alone, that other kids talk down to her and take advantage of her in class and in play times, and treat her unkindly. But because she is bright and social, she does notice, and it hurts.

It hurts me too.

I would give anything for her to have a friend, a protector, an ally in the schoolyard. I would give anything for someone to genuinely like her, to seek her out and want to be her friend. But that doesn’t seem to be happening.

Well, that’s not entirely true. She does have children who seem to like her. Unfortunately, many of them seem to be younger than she is, which fits because she is behind her peers and so one would think younger kids would not find her so different.

She yearns for kids in her class and her grade to be accepting of her, though.

Some of the kids who play with her are boys, both older and younger, which is nice. Boys tend to be less judgmental about stuff at this age, and don’t really care that she’s a little behind. She’s ready to play running, noisy, active, sporty games and so she’s one of the group. They pick on her for stuff, but they pick on everyone equally, if you run slower or can’t climb as well or don’t catch well or whatever. It’s equal opportunity, and she’s not singled out. And she’s beautiful, which may not matter now, but will count for a lot as the boys get older.

But she’s very much a girl, and loves girly things like stuffies and skirts and fairies and princesses. And thus she yearns for a girl best friend to enjoy these things with her.

Some of kids who play with her are also neuro-atypical or have some sort of other issue, which stands to reason. If you’re the odd man out, you will seek out someone else on the fringes, because there is no one else. But these friendships, too, are not without difficulties.

So she plays with a little autistic fellow, who is sweet and smart, but that’s difficult because he doesn’t do “friends” like a neurotypical kid does.

She plays with a little girl who wears leg braces, but she has been indulged by her parents because of her medical problems and is thus domineering and controlling and more than a little spoiled.

She plays with a little girl who transferred into her class later last year, and who has breathtaking anger management issues, and therefore she finds herself the brunt of this child’s anger and aggression, or involved in unhealthy and confrontational situations that this difficult child has started with other children. Thankfully, the teachers know who the instigator is, and who the guilty-by-association are, in these situations.

So playing with other kids on the fringes may alleviate some of the loneliness, but it’s not a great solution in the long term for someone who is struggling to make sense of the big picture around her at the best of times.

And really, all she wants – all any eight-year-old girl wants, honestly – is just to be part of the group. Liked. Accepted. “Normal”. A friend.

I don’t understand why that doesn’t happen.

Of course, I am biased. I think she’s the most wonderful little girl in the world. What parent doesn’t think their child is wonderful? But if parents are honest with themselves, they can see their child’s faults. If I am honest with myself, what do I see that could cause her to be friendless?

Not much. Not socially, anyways.

Maybe the intellectual difficulties ARE a big deal, at least to kids. Maybe they DO matter to kids.

I think back on the kids I knew in school. Did we ostracize kids who were not as “smart” as others? By and large… I don’t remember doing so. I don’t think we did. Some of my social group were at the top of the class, some were at the bottom, and the rest of us were in the middle majority.

One little girl who was treated very badly was clearly different. Although we did not identify these things then as we do now, I would suspect she was on the autism spectrum. There were rumours about her having suffered brain damage as an infant which impaired her judgement and her functioning, but of course, they were unsubstantiated.

But looking back on this poor girl and her time in school, I remember the other children were merciless. They treated her horribly. I tried to be kind to her, but to my shame, I did not always go out of my way to befriend or protect her, either.

My heart breaks not just for her and her sister, who was also very likely neuro-atypical, but for her mom as well. How painful it must have been for her to see what her children endured, to have loved them and been unable to protect them. To send them off to school each day, where they should have felt safe and happy, but instead was just sending lambs into a lion’s den.

It must have been so painful, so exhausting, so heartbreaking.

It was a different time. It was certainly not a better time. All kids, regardless of differences in functioning and ability, were just lumped together. But it does have a bit of a happy ending in that, as educational theory and research in intellectual disabilities has progressed, I encountered this little girl again in high school, where she was finally able to find a place in a special ed class (imagine a time when there was no such thing as special education!) where she was nurtured, accepted, and appreciated. She seemed much happier.

And although my daughter does not have anywhere near the problems of the little girl from my grade school, it does raise some interesting questions. Are children just excluding her because she is different, like millions of Lord-of-the-Flies-style gangs of children before her? Am I naïve to think she would be able to flourish in a regular classroom? Would a special education setting be better for her, in the long run, both academically and socially?

Maybe. But there are also some problems with this, too.

We have applied for a spot in the special education stream for the start of grade four. However, this would mean she would have to switch schools, as there’s no specific special ed class to suit her at her current school.

I’ve casually broached the subject with her. And despite the fact that she hasn’t got many friends at the school, she IS well liked. The teachers all know her and love her. She can be counted on to participate joyously in any class or assembly. She is kind and nurturing to others. The older kids like her and know her by name and say hello to her in the halls. The younger kids, too.

Whatever difficulties she may have in class, or socially among her peers, school is still a happy place for her. She feels mostly safe and happy there. So when I have mentioned the prospect of switching schools, even as casually as I have tried to do, she is not keen.

She cried. Even just the mere thought of going elsewhere brought tears to her eyes and panic to her voice. She loves her school.

And honestly, the prospect of putting my child on a bus and sending her 40 minutes across town to a different school does not thrill me, either. Having her attending school a stone’s throw from our home gives both of us no small amount of comfort.

This decision, it appears, will not be an easy one to make.

And, despite the fact that if we do make a change it will not be until the fall of 2017, the wheels of bureaucracy grind as inevitably slowly as ever, and therefore we need to decide what to do by December of this year. So it’s safe to say, it’s been in the back of my mind for quite some time.

It feels like there is no right answer to this question, but a whole lot of wrong ones.

But you know, it would all be so easy if she just had a circle of friends. If she had friends, I would not uproot her. I would not worry about her. I would let her continue to learn at her own pace and supplement her school work here at home to help her try to keep up. I would let her be.

If only she had friends.

I would give anything for her to have a few good friends.