On navigating friendships when you have a neurodiverse child

By Megan Vos

Years ago, I was at an outdoor pool with my then five-year-old and two-year-old daughters. I noticed a group of little girls nearby, sitting side by side on towels on the warm concrete pool deck. Their moms chatted on lounge chairs, their breezy sundresses grazing flawless bodies. They sipped green smoothies as their conversations dipped in and out of anecdotes about their husbands, their children, their summer plans. The girls giggled and ate peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. My older daughter was about their age, but the similarities seemed to end there.

My daughter was angry because of the lunch I had packed, or because I hadn’t brought her favorite bathing suit, or because her sister got the pink diving stick and she had to settle for orange. I don’t remember the reason. There was always something wrong. She scowled and poked at the Bento box in front of her. I watched the moms and girls with awe and envy in between the moments when I was physically restraining my two-year-old from jumping into the lap pool—her main hobby that summer—and responding to my kindergartner’s complaints.

I thought of my own childhood as I watched this idyllic summer scene play out—of summer days spent with friends at the local state park in New Hampshire. We’d swim in the small lake until our fingers were pruny, then walk to the snack bar for Fun Dip and Pop Rocks, or wander to the small playground, with its metal slide that burned our wet bottoms, then back to the lake for more swimming and snacks. Our moms had coolers of salami sandwiches, lemonade, Goldfish crackers, Oreos. I can still smell the murky water, taste the salami on pita bread, hear the breeze rustling the pine trees overhead, the cadence of our moms’ voices—the soundtrack of my childhood.

In those days, it was just as likely that someone else’s mom would pick you up from school as your own. We were fixtures at one another’s dinner tables, familiar with each family member’s quirks and temperaments. We folded each other into the fabric of our families, supporting one another through divorces and deaths, celebrating birthdays and graduations, and later, weddings and babies.

I assumed that, like my own mom, I would meet my good mom friends when my older daughter started preschool; I would find my people and she would find hers and we’d all live happily ever after, the generations remaining connected for years to come. In my mind, I saw myself taking walks after preschool drop off with a handful of other moms doing the same, pushing our strollers and discussing sleep and clutching lukewarm coffees.

But the reality was, my older daughter was different, and didn’t really connect with other kids her age. As a baby, she never took a bottle, she hated the car, and she disliked socks. In our Music Together classes, she sobbed through every song that was in minor key, starting when she was 15 months, foreshadowing her sadness at any song with a hint of emotion that continues to this day.

As she became a toddler, she preferred solo play, or playing with my husband and me. She started reading young, and her imaginative play involved replaying the Disney movies and chapter books she loved. I was the Stepmother to her Cinderella, the Beezus to her Ramona.

Last year, when she was eleven, our older daughter was diagnosed with autism. Because she “hit her milestones” and “was very talkative,” autism hadn’t been on our radar, and I never knew how differently it could present in girls than in boys, until our therapist shared an article with me, which read like a description of my daughter.

The diagnosis felt like an umbrella that encompassed all of the piecemeal diagnoses and explanations we had accumulated over the years. Giftedness. High sensitivity. Sensory processing disorder. Introversion. Anxiety. Depression. As my daughter so astutely noted when we told her the results of her neuropsych evaluation, “I’m still me, but now I know more about myself.” Now, instead of an elaborate conjecture about why she was reading instead of playing with her peers, why she was constantly unable to see her own part in social conflict, why so many things felt so, so hard, we had a word: autism.

I have moments of sadness when I see groups of middle school girls together, laughing, being goofy together, or huddled in deep conversation. When I think about my own traumatic middle school years, compounded by my parents’ messy divorce, what stands out most is the way I leaned on my friends, and the way I was able to be fully myself with them. I can see myself lying side by side with a good friend on her parents’ bed on Friday nights, watching Picket Fences and eating chocolate ice cream with crushed walnuts. I can see another squeezing my hand on a hike with our moms and younger siblings when my parents separated a year after hers. My daughter has had periods where she’s been grounded and happy socially but at twelve, she hasn’t experienced that sort of vulnerability that can only exist in deep friendship, or the joy of laughing with abandon with a good friend.

Her diagnosis has validated what I knew that day on the pool deck, years ago. We were not like those moms and daughters, not because I wasn’t trying hard enough, but because my daughter is not wired that way. Her system needs different things. And, while I recognize that many moms are in far more challenging circumstances than I am, my own struggles are not insignificant.

If, for the past dozen years, I have felt like I am doing something qualitatively different from many of the families around us it’s because I am. I wish I could say that the diagnosis has made things easier, but the truth is we have a lot of really hard days. The transition from elementary school to middle school has been sad and volatile and sometimes scary. Since the diagnosis, however, I have been able to put less pressure on myself and on my daughter to fit into a mold that was never going to work for us.

While we are still waiting to see what my daughter’s social life will look like as she moves into adolescence, I feel grateful to have found true friends, and to have been able to differentiate my own social needs from my daughter’s. I have the kind of friends I can text when I’m having a hard day to share my deepest fears about my daughter’s mental health. The kind of friends who make me laugh and bring chocolate and meet for long walks or short chats, whatever we can fit in. We have gone through both hard and joyful things together.

Our daughters are sometimes part of our friendship, but now that they are at different middle schools, they’ll inevitably drift apart, and I’m ready for my daughter’s relationships to play a smaller role in my own. I’m trying to let my daughter lead, to find her own more authentic version of the poolside peanut butter and jelly fantasy, however it might look. I hope she will find spaces where she feels free to both be herself and also explore who she might become.

Megan Vos produces Listen to Your Mother, a live show featuring local writers’ original stories about motherhood. As the mother of a recently diagnosed autistic child, she is learning a whole new way of parenting, and is rewriting the story she thought she was writing for the first dozen years of her parenting life. She lives in Colorado with her partner and two daughters. Find her on Instagram at @meganvoswrites.

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