I was observing at a high school this week when an eleventh grader entered the room. Friendly and unswervingly polite, this young man with ASD and some cognitive challenges, said hello and took a seat. Soon after, another young man followed, giving him a high-five, and settling in at the table. Over the course of the next hour, I found out the second young man did not have an IEP or the need for speech, he just accompanied his friend during their lunch period to the speech room. Voluntarily.
I asked how long they had been friends and he responded, “Since 7th grade. We hang out all the time.” When the speech student left the room to get his lunch, his friend confided that he worried for him, “He doesn’t really seem to know that not everyone is his friend. He high fives people in the halls, but sometimes I think the others only do it out of guilt.” He went on to ask if we thought he should talk to his friend’s mom as his friend had started a Twitter account and he was concerned there was potential for him to be bullied. I had to fight the urge to ask him a million questions. This young man was MENSA smart, involved in a million academic clubs, and articulate. He was a rare combination of incredible intellect and deep empathy.
Why were they friends? I mulled that one over and came to the conclusion that he really liked hanging out with this young man. As someone who also may be on the fringe of the social pecking order for entirely different reasons, these boys found common ground. Sometimes kids find each other in their commonality, making their own peer groups. I wished I could clone this young man for all the kids I see that need that one good friend. The good friend who will look out for them when the adults who love and protect them aren’t around. I wanted to hug him and tell him what an amazing human being he is, but instead I just smiled and told him his friend was lucky to have him in his life.
He embodies what parents dream of when they imagine a friend for their child, not just the kids that struggle with social weakness or cognitive challenges, but all children. We want someone who knows them and loves them almost as much as we do. Someone to laugh with them and be silly. Someone to talk to when they can’t or won’t talk to us about Twitter or girls or what worries them the most.
We need to figure out how to help kids become peer mentors, people who look out for one another and yes, even friends. Empathy and kindness are highly undervalued character traits in this Selfie culture. Michelle Garcia Winner talks a lot about peer mentoring and how effective it is for kids with social language challenges (read a great article by her about Peer Models versus Peer Mentors HERE ). Speech Therapy can be great but we can’t travel with them through school. Neither can their teachers or their parents, but their peers are there, we just need to connect them. Life is hard, but it can be a bit easier with the help of just one friend.