56: The Most Popular Girl

56: The Most Popular Girl

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Raising Kids on the Spectrum

The Most Popular Girl

Friendship isn’t a big thing — it’s a million little things.

~Author Unknown

We were late for school again. It happens more than I care to admit. I tell myself that most parents, even single ones like me, don’t have to wake an autistic child who is exhausted from a grueling forty-hour-per-week therapy schedule and doesn’t want to be touched. They don’t have to explain in sign language and pictures why her favorite sundress is inappropriate in winter, wrestle her into velour leggings that won’t assault her overtaxed sensory system (again, without touching), pack a nut-, dairy-, preservative-, and gluten-free lunch, and calm her after a meltdown (or two). They don’t administer a witch’s brew of supplements that make the cod liver oil chaser seem downright delicious. And they definitely don’t drive to another school district in hellish rush-hour traffic in a minivan that disgorges cereal, broken toys, and mangled bits of crayon whenever the sliding doors open. But I know this is an excuse.

I should have gotten up earlier, guzzled espresso, and omitted my shower (again).

I’m fairly certain sending Katie to school in her blue cupcake pajamas would be frowned upon, even in a special-needs classroom.

Plus it was raining, which meant more traffic and a guaranteed bad-hair day.

I hustled Katie through the half-empty parking lot, mentally running through the day’s schedule: work meetings, deadlines, another lengthy round trip to the school, paperwork, grocery shopping, afternoon therapy. A group of kids straggled to the front of the school just as the sun broke through brooding clouds. They were probably first graders and clearly going on a field trip. Their excited voices mingled with the rainbow-hued drizzle.

Like most parents, I’d taken it for granted that friends and conversation would fill my daughter’s life. But friends and conversation don’t come easily to an autistic eight-year-old. For Katie, they hadn’t come yet, but on that morning, listening to the children’s laughter, I had (almost) stopped fearing they would never come at all.

Katie splashed through puddles and commented on her pink leopard-spotted rain boots as if I wasn’t there. We approached the covered entry and a child shouted, “Hey, look. That’s Katie.” Out of the corner of my eye, I saw a cluster of children turn. “Hi, Katie,” they yelled across the parking lot, waving frantically.

I looked down and met my daughter’s stormy blue-grey eyes. “Are you making friends?” A note of surprise colored my voice. She smiled shyly as the kids continued to wave. “What do you say?”

“Hi,” she said and waved at them with loose-limbed grace.

Turning away, she fiddled with her raincoat as if it were no big deal — except it was. If those children had continued to talk and ignored Katie as we walked past, no one would have thought twice, least of all me. The school and its teachers promoted tolerance, but still, those children made the effort. It would take that, plus hard work and a miracle, for Katie to make a true friend.

A few weeks later, I picked Katie up from school. The campus swirled with chaos and chatter. Crowds used to push Katie past her limits, but she had learned to tolerate and even enjoy them on days when the mood bubbled over with excitement.

A girl with long silky hair and a brilliant smile ran up.

“Hi, Katie,” she said.

Katie grinned and studied the clouds, her caramel curls glinting in the sun.

“Katie,” I said. “What do you say?”

She glanced at the girl, flapping her hands like a quail struggling for flight. “Hi, Katie.” When she can’t recall names — a common occurrence — her name serves as placeholder.

“Try again.” I looked at the girl, who beamed up at me, clearly unfazed by Katie’s response. “What’s your name?”

“I’m London,” she said, looking at Katie. “Lon . . . don.”

The name suited her. She oozed big-city sophistication.

I said hi, and Katie echoed my response. Her gaze darted from me to London, then away.

London smiled. “I’m friends with Katie. I sit with her every day at recess.” She paused but I was too stunned to speak. “Well, I sit with her in the lunch room. I would sit with her at recess but Katie doesn’t sit much.”

“No,” I managed to laugh. “She doesn’t.”

How was it possible that this gorgeous, chatty girl was friends with my quirky, quiet daughter? London had “most popular” written all over her. She could play with anyone she wanted at recess. Why Katie? It pained me to think it, but why Katie?

“Katie runs really fast and she climbs the monkey bars with the boys.” London’s face filled with awe.

“You could climb them too.”

“No,” she said. “Not with the boys. I just watch Katie. She’s really good.”

It saddened me that a first grader considered certain activities limited to boys. Did it make me happy or sad that Katie would never understand these subtle, unwritten rules? I wasn’t sure.

“I can climb,” Katie said. She did a little dance and burst into song: “The itty bitty pider climbed up the water pout. . . .”

London laughed. “She’s funny too.”

I nodded. It was true. Katie could crack you up if you took the time to listen. The problem is most people view Katie’s autism as a deficit rather than a difference. But this extraordinary seven-year-old saw my child for who she was and embraced her.

“Hey London, if Katie talked more, I know she’d say she likes sitting with you at lunch.”

She flipped her blond hair and shrugged.

London had never been shunned by her cousins or kids at the park. Her mother had never watched her stand by the swings, silent and ignored. Tears pooled behind my eyes. “It means a lot to me, and I’m sure it does to Katie too. So thank you.”

I fought the urge to hug her. I adored this girl, so beautiful for reasons that had nothing to do with appearance.

“I like her,” she said, as if that was the only reason that mattered.

My lip trembled. I worried she’d think I was strange — a parent, crying at school. I took a deep breath and told her we needed to go. I didn’t tell her I had just enough time to make Katie’s afternoon therapy session, assuming I encountered no traffic.

London smiled. “Okay. Bye, Katie.”

Katie assembled her response. “Bye, Li . . . bye, London.” She grinned, pleased with herself, and the three of us shared a round of high fives.

I cried on the drive home.

My daughter had a friend.

I never thought I’d view that statement as something close to miraculous, but autism changed me. I no longer take friends — mine or my daughter’s — for granted.

I eased off the highway — on time for once — and silently thanked London, as well as her parents, her family, her teacher, her school. Yes, the years of hard work were finally paying off, but the miracle was London.

Thank you, thank you, thank you.

My smart, stubborn, beautiful, barely verbal, autistic daughter had a friend.

~Cynthia J. Patton

More stories from our partners