Calculating Isaac’s capacity to conduct conventional friendships is as head scratching as the most complex of conundrums. He possesses scant ability to adhere to the rules and formulas of sociability innate in most of us. Explaining the essence of friendship such as sharing and symbiosis is tantamount to talking in a foreign unlearned, un-contextualised language. Fruitless and thankless.
Yet so often, Isaac is a roaring and adoring, larger than life social animal. Attentive to absurd games, ball throwing and bouncing, often his creation, always on his terms. All eye contact and breathless laughter. Infecting all in his wake with his own particular brand of jumping joy. Just ask his autism-informed, well drilled army of cousins.
It’s just that he can retreat into the solitude from the social swiftly and alarmingly. His universe-falling-apart meltdowns may appear indiscriminate, immediate and scary. His is a topsy turvy world where we are not what we seem to him, and him to us. Where who he’s touched by and who he touches seems arbitrary. People are bewitched by his personality or beaten by it.
A forensic of Isaac’s behaviours throws a spotlight on how ill-equipped he is for maintaining a friendship in the way we, as typical humans, believe they need to be. And may explain a reluctance to initiate friends, rarely referencing them, appearing content in his world.
Take eating. Isaac doesn’t appreciate his appetite; he’s barely aware of it. Articulating hunger is extremely unusual, unless repeating a phrase he’s heard. As such he has a finely balanced diet – resolutely at room temperature, ordered, bland, fiercely familiar – if anything’s off balance, it’s all off limits. Profoundly, from a social perspective, the process of eating is as fussy as the food itself. If the circumstances aren’t particular, he simply won’t eat. Or engage.
And of course, eating is that most convivial of acts. An organised chaos that slots into a code of human togetherness. Right from the early years birthday parties, eating is a focus – where kids feed their friendships as much as themselves.
Before diagnosis, we’d despair of the malcontent Isaac, screaming, not eating, not still, whilst his peers ate cake, giggled, bonded, shouted and got this rite of passage totally right. Now, unless seriously stage managed, these gaudy, noisy affairs are avoided. Just hearing Happy Birthday sung differently to how he last heard (which it invariably will be) sends his strict, catalogued mind into mutiny.
His visual memory antagonises further, I would guess, so whenever he witnesses eating in groups now, he associates it with chaos and discomfort, thus explaining his unwillingness to be a part of things more often than not. Family functions see Isaac eat alone and away with only an iPad for company. Not eating together means not forming friendships, alliances and mischief.
This is magnified at school, where the dinner hall, with its clutter and shrill sounds, disturbs him too much, meaning he has a picnic with his Teaching Assistant. Quiet and separate. As a tactic, thoughtful and heart-warming. Ultimately though, him missing out eating with others is him missing out on making friendships.
The school lunches have fed his obsession for repetition. He mentions lunchtime the minute he arrives at school, needing affirmations and confirmations throughout the morning. By seeking safety and security through this lunchtime routine, friendship has perhaps been sacrificed.
Isaac’s physicality, his love of jumping and squeezing and bundling, has probably landed a blow for friendship too. It may just be over zealous hugs, but unable to channel these acts into organised physical play, the coordination, motor skills and learning perhaps too demanding, it can express itself keenly onto the other children. Despite never having an aggressive or sinister flavour, at worse he can be seen as a pugnacious presence that teachers attempt to manage through the toothless tools of explanation and discipline. He’s rather left out on a limb.
So eating, obsessions, repetition, routine as well as rough play – all critical to conventional sociability – must go some way to explain his lack of friendships. They mean he is missing important windows to learning social cues. The proof is his persona, and how he is – and isn’t – with his peers. Isaac’s propensity to play with his peer group is paltry. He appears to have no need for them.
Who knows when and if he’ll need them, and in what form. When I dare to look ahead, lying in wait are scary realities that risk a friendship desert. Isaac could well be the chief teller of tales, considering how honest he is and will remain. Not a perfect role for the playground. As sarcasm gains serious traction, Isaac could lose whatever hold he has of childhood chatter. However much he adapts to surroundings, he could well need to flap, and chant, ape and repeat. Right now there appears to be a fondness of Isaac’s foibles among his school group. Indeed, the school do say he is beginning to show the signs of forming friendships; with adult support this could happen. But will they be in place before the currency of friendship shifts from accepting to alienating?
Maybe friendships are and could remain just too onerous for him. The codes impossible to decipher. Intuitive and conflicting. It explains why he seeks the solidity of inanimate objects as opposed to the unpredictability of animate ones. Stuff over folk.
How about this though: What if reading people and all their peculiarities is only half the story to making genuine friendships and connections. Or indeed the wrong half. Perhaps how we view and define peer group friendship is narrow and niche.
Because as I’ve said, Isaac is very much a social soul. And it’s who his visceral and intense playful experiences are with that’s instructive. When friendship is distilled to a simple positive interaction with laughter as rewards and absolute attentiveness, Isaac’s connections can be electric.
Demonstrating his wonky position in the world, Isaac thrives with kids younger or older than him. And adults. Like that of his sixty-something grandfather. One of Isaac’s truly authentic, unreconstructed best friends. Someone who will be the centre of Isaac’s world when he’s with him, because that’s where he plonks himself. In Isaac’s eye line, responding, cajoling, communicating, and collaborating. Large and loud and in each other’s faces, this pure play is rewarding for both grandfather and grandson, because both give their simple, uninterrupted all.
It’s not just about getting on Isaac’s level (literally). It’s about entering and immersing himself in Isaac’s knock about, shouty, loving, learn-through-zaniness personality. Words and numbers jostle with japes and slapstick. It’s exuberant and exhausting. And give or take some flung spectacles, hugely, hugely positive.
These shows of affection and connection demonstrate how, rearticulated and redefined, friendship is obtainable and straightforward for Isaac. In fact, distil friendship further into a simple altruistic act of being tender and loving though, and Isaac’s sociability is supreme.
Because nothing demonstrates Isaac’s huge reserves of love and affection than the adoration – and little obsession – of his newly arrived younger sister, Tabitha.
Isaac was perfectly programmed for her arrival. To be tender with touch and to show love. To not be alarmed by crying. To know that mummy would always be with her. Brotherly instructions were inscribed into him. And now he behaves utterly beautifully with her. It’s as if a conscious learning to show love has brought out a dormant but vast natural ability.
“Can I kiss Tabitha?” is the question most heard in our household. Followed closely by “Can I carry Tabitha…all by myself.” Both of which he does do determinedly and intently, but, I would fathom, without an ounce of malice or revenge or attention grabbing. All emotions I imagine can play a part, but have been absent here.
(Now’s not the time to mention his insecurities that are running amok. Manifesting themselves into a heightened need for routine, defiance and more inflexibility than usual. The point is that there is a pure love for Tabitha.)
His responses to the crying are to implore us to change a nappy, or feed her. He observes a lot, and comments on what he sees.
“Can Tabitha come with us?” has become as much a request as a need for reassurance. He loves the way she smells and feels. He talks to her: “Look at the train Tabitha”. It’s ever so gentle and true to his focus and obsessions, a scream from Tabitha will have to be particularly ear-piercing to halt a train he’s playing with. He talks of nappies and cleaning. He needs to know she’s about. A permanent presence.
And whether I am seeing it or choosing to imagine it, there’s a definite and distinct way she looks at her older brother. For long periods of time. Knowingly, lovingly, protectively. What I like to believe is she’s detected his compassion, and is communicating it back. What I’m sure of is it’s the beginning of a most wholesome and genuine and transparent friendship.
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