It was a series of loud splashes that sent a wave of gratitude washing over me. Late last summer, I peeked out my kitchen window to see five kids horsing around in our pool with my teenage son. I could barely contain myself as I watched the group bat around a beach ball, jump cannonball-style into the pool and laugh together.
When my son was little, I imagined that when he was a teen there would be neighbourhood kids over all the time, eating snacks with him on our back porch, cranking up their tunes, or playing games and making a lot of noise together. I looked forward to them raiding my fridge—to them crashing on sofas and the floor at impromptu overnighters. But in four years of high school, this had never happened for my son. Not even once.
My son has autism spectrum disorder (ASD), of the type formerly referred to as Asperger’s. People like my son can function well in the world and will often achieve independence and success in academic and working life. But they struggle with communication and social skills. Typically, they miss out on the nuances of facial expressions, body language, and social cues, so they often struggle to make and keep friends. While this always hurts (for both the kids and the parents), it’s especially painful during the teen years, when the importance of ‘hanging out’ peaks.
Most parents don’t think twice about their kid’s friends dropping by at their house. But for parents of teens on the spectrum, such occurrences are anything but normal. And we think about it a lot—nearly all the time.
Back in elementary school, things were different. My son’s time was filled with playdates I set up with other moms. Birthday parties included just about everyone in the class. Playground trips just took a quick phone call to arrange. It was the golden age of acceptance. But around middle school, the social landscape changed dramatically. Texting and lunchroom conversations about the weekend replaced parent-coordinated activities. And before he even realized it, my son had no social life.
I get a lump in my throat just thinking about how this has pummeled my son’s self-esteem. Having experienced rejection and exclusion too many times, he started to keep to himself and brush off my suggestions of joining a club or team to meet new people.
It kills me because he is such a great kid to those who know and love him—thoughtful, honest, loyal, generous, respectful, dependable, and so darn funny. He makes me laugh loudly, every single day, with his offbeat humor and surprising perspectives on life. Throw in his artistic talent, musical abilities, and deep love of movies, and you’ve got a well-rounded guy who’s a joy to be around, if you just make the effort to see past his initial awkwardness.
But the other kids would never dig beneath his quiet demeanor. And if he saw them talking, he'd hover just outside the group, listening to the conversation and hoping for an invitation to join in. While fortunately he isn’t bullied, it’s heartbreaking to me nonetheless that the kids just don’t notice him.
My son feels the exclusion—especially from kids who used to hang out with him when was younger, but who now share no more than a mumbled “hey!” if their paths happen to cross. We probably overcompensate, trying to fill the social void of his weekends with family activities: bowling, swimming, shopping, roller skating, bike riding, dinners out and movies. We refuse to let him be bored and alone on our watch, but, as much as we fill his days, we’re acutely aware that parents can’t replace peers as friends. That's what keeps me up at night.
But then, this little pool party happened.
Going way out of his comfort zone and ignoring his track record of rejections, my son decided he was going to invite some kids from his art class to a pool party at our house. I’m not quite sure what even prompted the initiative after so many years of being blown off, but I was cautiously optimistic when he told me about it: excited that he was making this attempt yet still worried that the teens would decline his invitation—or just not show up.
But for the first time in about a decade, my son’s peers said “Yes!”
To these teens, accepting the invitation probably meant nothing more than making sure they didn’t have a scheduling conflict that day. But although they probably didn’t realize it, when they said yes to his party—they were saying to my son: Yes, we accept you. Yes, we have fun with you. Yes, we want to spend time with you. Yes!
So, while this pool party played out, my knees buckled a little, as I was hit with sheer joy. I loved watching my son’s face light up as the group floated on inner tubes, laughing and joking. The smiles and easy conversation told me he felt valued and accepted by these kids. In that moment, I felt in awe of my son and the courage it took for him to make this happen. And I felt grateful. For all of it.
Later, after the last kid left, my son told me how much fun he'd had and that the group was already making plans for the next pool party. A second hangout. That might sound like such a small thing, but to me it was permission to feel something that I hadn’t let myself feel for the longest time: hope. As my son headed off to change into dry clothes, I looked out again to our pool, the waters now still and reflecting the pale evening sun. I stood there for a while and reveled in the possibility that friendships might lie ahead.