When my son Ezra was in preschool, teachers told us that he would routinely bump into other children in the classroom. It wasn’t intentional. His internal radar failed to detect the boys and girls in his orbit.
So Ezra would go about his odd pursuits–lining up toy dinosaurs in elaborate symmetrical patterns, flipping repeatedly through the same picture books–on his own.
At a local playground where little girls would gather at a toddler-size picnic table to engage in imaginary tea parties, Ezra would shimmy up a pole supporting the canopy above them and balance his body precariously, arms extended, oblivious to the scene below.
Though he was diagnosed around age three with autism, over time my wife and I came to appreciate and adore our son’s many strengths and talents. Ezra, who is now 16, had a prodigious memory–particularly for dates and animation trivia–and an extensive knowledge of animals. More important, he was sweet and loving and happy.
What he didn’t have was friends. Or, apparently, a need for them.
Autism is at its core a social disorder, interfering with the ability–or even the instinct– to connect with other human beings. Even at age 12, Ezra could ask a stranger her birthday, and instantaneously reveal which Disney movie premiered on that date. But if you asked him to name the children in his seventh-grade class, he couldn’t. He would guess: “Rachel? David?”
He wasn’t completely isolated. Ezra had strong bonds with our immediate family and with a handful of adults and teenagers who made the effort to get to know him. But he lacked the inclination to seek relationships.
I would hear about other children with similar diagnoses who expressed sadness, even experienced depression, because they so longed to be included with their peers, but lacked the tools.
Not Ezra. When we pressed him about making friends, he made it clear it simply wasn’t a priority. “I’m fine,” he’d say in his cheerful, quirky way. “I just like being on my own.”
Ezra’s autism specialist expressed calm and confidence, assuring us that our son would make friends when he was ready. Probably not many, she predicted, and they’d likely be kids who shared his passions: animals and animation. Then she offered a piece of wisdom. “His friendships aren’t going to look like yours,” she said. “You can’t judge them based on your own experience or expectations. He’s not you.”
My hopes were raised on one of my frequent outings with Ezra to the local zoo, when a woman approached and said that her son recognized Ezra from school. (Ezra attends a therapeutic program for kids with similar challenges.) Just like Ezra, the little boy knew the zoo by heart. He even routinely brought a camera to catalog the fauna. As I watched them, I imagined future play dates, the children musing over photos of zoo animals. But the two boys just trudged on, taking note of the dromedaries and gray wolves, but oblivious to each other.
The thing is, nothing about Ezra happens on my schedule. It happens on Ezra’s.
In 8th grade he started talking about a boy from school. From what I could tell their relationship consisted of pacing the playground in proximity, quizzing each other on “Simpsons” trivia. The next year it was another boy who would routinely join Ezra for lunch, sharing his extensive knowledge of Pixar movies.
In the animation class he attends on weekends, Ezra developed a bond with yet another boy. Staring at their computer monitors as they worked, they would shout back and forth about movies they had seen. Watching one Sunday morning, I was reminded of the newspaper newsroom I once worked in.
Last August, with school approaching, I asked Ezra what he was most excited about. He surprised me with his answer: “Seeing my friends.”
At home Ezra still talks obsessively about animated movies and zoo animals, but now he sprinkles his conversation with reports about the kids in his life: the girl who sings like an opera singer; the boy who knows a lot about cars. He talks about the kid who knows all about s 3D Movies and another whose thing is Lego.
When he turned 16, all Ezra wanted was a small party at home, but he was adamant about inviting one of his new friends. When the boy arrived with his mother, she told us how excited her son was.
“On the way over here, he was shouting, ‘I made a friend! I’m going to a birthday party!’” she said. “I know that sounds silly.”
Not at all.