Monday, January 9, 2012

Helping kids with special needs make friends

It's late afternoon on a ridiculously warm winter day, and Max is riding his beloved green tractor around our neighborhood. We pass by the front yard with the gigantic trampoline; two kids are bouncing on it. Max has never paid much attention to it before but today, he stops and stares.

"You want to go see the trampoline?" I ask.

"Eeee-yah!" says Max ["YEAH!"].

So he gets off his tractor and we walk over to the trampoline. There's a 12-year-old there who knows Max and a 7-year-old who doesn't.

"Hi!" says Max.

The kids say hi. I ask if it's OK if Max joins them, and when they agree I lift him onto it and hold his hand. Max's balance is excellent on solid ground but he's unsteady on trampolines; jumping isn't yet in his repertoire of movements.

"Max, tell them your name," I say.

"Ax!" says Max.

The younger kid eyes Max warily. "Doesn't he know how to talk?" he asks me.

"Max is talking—he does it in his own way," I say, evenly.

"How old is he?" the kid asks.

"Ask him," I say. "He's right here, he can hear you, and he'd love to talk with you."

"How old are you?" the kid asks Max.

"Eine!" says Max.

"He's nine?" the kids says, dubiously. "He doesn't look nine!"

"Max, you're nine, right?" I ask.

"Eee-yah!" Max says, nodding.

"Some kids don't always look their age," I tell the kid. "You look older than 7!"

"Right," says the older boy. "You do."

"Why does he have stuff coming out of his mouth?" the kid asks. "Why is his mouth always open?"

Max can't answer this one, even if his iPad and speech app were around, so I do.

"It's just the way his mouth is, and because it's open a lot, drool can come out," I say.

I pause. "Hey, Max, tell them what your favorite movie is!" I say.

"Arrrs Oooh!" ["Cars 2!"] he answers.

"I love that movie!" says the older kid.

As the kids bounce silently and Max rides their vibrations, my mind is whirling. I still get unnerved by kids who talk about Max as if he isn't there, and how kids can be taken aback by meeting Max, who happens to be among the more uber-friendly children of the world.

It used to make my heart ache. By this point in Max's life, though, I know that kids are mostly just curious. The younger ones have no filters; they say what they think. But when they're wary, I have to try to move them past their discomfort. I've learned to answer their questions straight up, and to keep roping Max into the discussion. It's a balance of helping them understand why he's different than they are—but also helping them see what's alike, too.

The older kid flops down on his butt then rebounds to his feet. Max and I both crack up.

"Max, if you want him to do it again say 'Again, please!'" I tell him.

Max says something like that, the boy repeats the move, Max giggles and both kids smile.

Max's laugh is the great equalizer—no matter who you are, it's hard to resist. When Max laughs, kids start to see his personality, not his disability. And once you get a laugh out of Max, you want more. The FDA has not yet labeled it an addictive substance, but someday they just might.

Now the little kid falls on his butt and jumps up, looking at Max. "You like that?" he asks.

"Eeee-yah!" Max says, happily.

And then the kids are bouncing up a storm and Max is laughing and we are all there in the twilight, enjoying each other's company and a spring-like winter's day.


  1. Thank you for writing this. I'm taking a lot away from it. I always answer for my Max. I feel like I want to protect him. What a really nice lesson you provided both Max and the other boys.

  2. I love the fact that you consistently seek out ways to get kids and adults talking TO Max instead of AT him. Love love love.

  3. Its def uncomfortable, but lately I find that other kids questions about Owen's difference trigger curiosity from owen himself. He never knew they were different in that way... I've been struggling the last year or so about how to explain Owen's autism to owen. To everyone else, I've got the script down pat. But to Owen, its totally different. The natural context of kids playing together has been helpful with this. I'm sure you can agree. Now those little boys on the trampoline know more about Max than they did the day before. I wish adults were more like that. I'd take a hundred questions about owen and his special needs over one disapproving look any day of the week.

  4. Thank you so much for this! I have to learn how to do this for my son.

  5. I like this, Ellen. I like how you handled the questions, how you kept Max involved, and gently "educated" a child unsure of Max. Good stuff!

    AND - if you figure out how to bottle Max's addictive laughter, then you can sell it and retire! :)

  6. This warms my heart! Kids do have a non verbal energy that makes it easier while engaging in physical activity. Actions speak louder than words. Good for you for engaging those boys!

  7. Ditto to Melanie's comment. I also always remember your "chocolate ice cream" tip/story. Great icebreaker.

  8. Just BEAUTIFUL....I loved this! I know this feeling all too well. It's so interesting and tremendously comforting to read another mother's perspective. Thank you for writing this :)

  9. Great story! I get very sad very quickly at how other kids act around my boys, but I remind myself that my being sad helps nobody, and I better buck up and help them make friends.

  10. Ellen I love that you chose to educate the younger kid instead of snapping at him like I would have you are really a great mom :)

  11. This made me smile through my tears!!! THis is exactly what I do for's not easy, but it's what we have to do!!! The FDA is still working on Olivia's smile too... ;)

  12. What a beautiful story. Thank you for sharing. My little guy is 9 months old; your writing helps me have hope for his future.

  13. I really loved this post; I could envision the entire scene playing out in my head just by reading your words. And I could see Max's smile and hear his laugh, which made me smile - and I had a tough afternoon today, so this really helped turn it around! Thanks so much for sharing. :)

  14. This post made me very emotional because I so struggle with having the courage to do what you did with those boys. It's a bit harder for us because Emma is not as friendly as Maxd. She is more reserved, studying. She is also sensitive to comments these days. On Halloween, a girl about 12 asked those say questions about Emma. Emma stopped trying to talk and told me, "I wonna go home now."

    I admire you courage and consistency and your ability to think fast on your feet for those "just right" answers.

    I know Max will thank you for this effort one day too.

    This definitely made my heart smile and motivates me to want to try a bit harder.

    Is there anyway that you could bottle up some of that infectious Max laughter and forward it our way? That sure would be a great ice breaker.

  15. As an adult, Billy has found ways to engage others. He walks up to people and says "Hi, I'm Billy!" Who can resist that? Then he asks them simple questions like "You got a dog?" and they are conversing.

    When we do presentations for high school kids, he walks into the room and they either stare or look away. Soon he asks them about a certain TV show (like 2 1/2 men) and they are communicating.

    He is better at this than I am.

  16. I am glad this inspired some of you. Trust me, it's taken me a long time to be able to respond this way. I used to get tongue-tied, or I'd just despair and not say a word.

    Cranky Mommy (who sounds not cranky at all): I hadn't even thought of it but you're right, I think the physical activity really paved the way. Or bounced the way, or something like that.

    And Amy, it is such a mixed blessing when a kid can perceive these things, isn't it? Max isn't yet aware that other kids stare or are wary of him. I actually do wish, as warped as it sounds, that someday he will have that understanding (and then, I'll help him deal). I'm sorry for that Halloween moment with Emma; at 12, a kid should know better.

  17. You may end up having to buy a trampoline, you know!

  18. Yeah, I was thinking that. It could make Max's popularity ratings soar!

  19. The FDA has not yet labeled it an addictive substance, but someday they just might.

    to funney ellen great post

  20. Wonderful! That gave me today's best smile! Next time, those two boys will know who Max is, hopefully say hi to him, and maybe even explain to their friends who he is (and feel kind of important because they know) - and children listen better to their friends than to unknown adults....

  21. Thanks for sharing this. It warmed my heart that the 12yo really seemed to pave the way for the younger child to accept Max. I echo the others in applauding your abiity to remain calm and cheerful when responding to the 7yo's questions. I can only imagine how difficult it is not to become defensive or upset at those moments.

  22. How wonderful! Laughter is addicting, especially when it's joyous! My little guy is wary of strangers and very rarely smiles at them. I hope he will be able to overcome least a little!

  23. Really love love how you handled this situation! Encouraging the other kids to talk to Max instead of you allow everyone to shine. Thank you for sharing your story som we can learn from it.

  24. Thanks for this post - I still sometimes get tongue-tied when I try to explain what's going on with my son to other kids - or I don't use simple enough language and they get bored and walk away. Your example here and in previous posts have really helped me.

  25. My Max is 18 months old. Thank u for this story. I can only hope that my heart is strong enough for this in the future. And my tears dont flow as easily.

  26. My name is Anna and I'm 12 with high functioning autism. I don't know what I'd do without Max on the Internet. He inspires me. I like the Cars movies. He helped me to see how being special is a good thing. I can play the flute. :)


Thanks for sharing!

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