It’s been a while since my family spent any significant amount of time with a group of kids with disabilities. For the past year or so, Schuyler has been doggedly committed to socializing with her neurotypical classmates, with results ranging from maybe promising to outright catastrophic. It’s rough for her, with her invisible disability and her stubborn determination to pass, to get so close to making it but falling short in the unforgiving world of middle school. It’s been beating all of us down a little.
This weekend, we got a little break. We attended a small birthday party for one of Schuyler’s oldest friends, a relationship that goes all the way back to her very first days in Schuyler’s AAC class when she was five. They don’t attend school together any more, and haven’t for several years, but they get together periodically, trick or treating together every year and doing something for their birthdays, which are just a few weeks apart. As they’ve grown older, their disabilities have progressed in different ways, and they’re no longer the little twins that they once were. But when they’re together, they are every bit as joyful as ever. Their friendship is a touchstone, a familiar place in an ever-increasingly complicated world.
Our commitment to Schuyler’s social integration with her neurotypical classmates remains as strong as ever, particularly since it’s driven so deeply by Schuyler’s own desires. And yet, on a weekend like this, in a gathering of four kids, only one of whom was neurotypical and who was something of a perfectly perfect miracle of patience and kindness (I think he might have been a robot; if he was, he’s definitely one of the droids you’re looking for), it’s not so difficult for me to recognize the temptations of sequestering these kids into classrooms where everyone is different, and so none are. It’s so easy to get caught up in our objections to putting our kids onto a kind of Island of Misfit Toys, but when these odd birds of a feather flock chaotically together, there’s a safety in numbers that, for a short time at least, can feel comfortable.
It’s perhaps something of an illusion, of course. The party was held at a miniature golf/go-carts place, and on a slightly chilly December Sunday afternoon, so the place was pretty deserted. But there were still a few other families, and I saw some of them giving The Look to the party of different kids playing a very different kind of golf. But I must confess, I was watching for The Look. Schuyler and her friends seemed carefree. Their flock was fine.
The third girl in the party wasn’t someone I knew, but in very general terms, she was on the autism spectrum and had some other challenges as well. Those challenges didn’t line up at all with Schuyler’s or her friend’s, so it was enlightening to watch as the three of them navigated their interactions. Schuyler and her friend, non-verbal but highly social, and this new girl, completely verbal but trying (with, I must say, a good deal of success) to navigate some tough social issues and make it all work.
It did work, and I was proud of them all. Schuyler was extremely anxious going in; she’s had a rocky time with kids her age over the past few months, and lately she has often seemed ready to give it all up and go into the woods to write her manifesto. But she ended up having a good time, aside from a few moments when her newly discovered melancholy caught up with her. She shakes those moments off better than her father, however. The defining moment for me was tearing through the go-cart course, Schuyler sitting at my side and squealing with happiness for the entire five minute ride.
My hands were numb from the cold, and I still have a slight ringing in my left ear from Schuyler’s ecstatic barbaric yawp. But it was the finest five minutes I’ve spent in a very long time. I am always honored when I get to join their flock.