Children on the autism spectrum usually fall in one of two camps when it comes to their feelings about crowds: crowds are either an audience or a plague.
For Jesse, crowds are an audience. He loves to mug, and show off, and recite what he knows about things of no interest to the listener. For Noah, crowds are a plague. This makes it a challenge to plan a wedding when both boys are also a part of it. Because weddings involve crowds, and crowds involve people, and for Noah, there’s no safety in numbers.
“What do you want to do in the wedding?”
It was a Saturday, and Rachel was inclining her head toward the kids as we sat together at the kitchen table.
She and Cailean weren’t having a bridal party in their June wedding. And she already had a ring bearer. But she wanted our children to be a part of her wedding. Rachel babysat our kids when they – and she – were very young. In a way, they have grown up together. She was once a freshman in high school, living five houses away, walking up the street on summer mornings to help lighten my load on those long, hot days when three bored children were faced with the prospect of unfilled hours and a million ways to harass each other. And now she is a graduate of NYU, and about to get married. It’s like a scene in one of those cartoons where the clock hands start to spin really fast and then explode into flames.
Grace screamed, “FLOWER GIRL!” in all caps. A pretty new dress was involved. So, naturally.
For their part, the boys hemmed and hawed, but I had already set a plan with Rachel.
Noah and Jesse were going to be ushers. They would distribute programs and escort guests to their seats. But in her clever, subtle way, Rachel was going to make it look like it was the boys’ choice. She bent toward them.
“How about ushers?” Then there was something like a click, which I imagine was the pin being pulled on Noah’s mental grenade.
“What? I have to take them to their seats?” (pausing, planting his feet in an effort to steady himself). “And they have to touch my arm!?”
“Just the women,” I offered, helpfully.
“WOMEN ARE GOING TO TOUCH MY ARM?”
When we parent kids with autism spectrum disorders or disabilities of any kind, we find ourselves in the position of needing to know when to push the boundaries for the sake of growth, and when to back off because the whole thing will be a very bad idea, and we would be fools to ignore that whining alarm going off in the back of our minds. But also, we have promised a dear friend that our children are going to be ushers, so, here goes nothing.
Matt and I, knowing that in two weeks the boys would be grappling with a bit of discomfort, gave them the opportunity to see their “safe people.”
This is a term Noah has developed for the people around whom he can spend time without feeling threatened or scared or exhausted by the work it takes to make sure he appears “normal.” No hiding his fluttering hands in his pockets, or pushing past his rising nausea to make eye contact. His grandparents, his “Aunt” Michelle (my best friend), and his best friend, Josiah, are among his safe people.
Matt juggled play dates on Saturday morning—Grace was with Annie, Jesse was with Luke. And Noah would get a sleepover with Josiah.
Josiah and Noah entered Shrewsbury Christian Academy together at five years old, and after six years, a move, and two more schools, they are still inseparable. They are two rare birds, those two: goofy enough for each other, content to sit in Noah’s room on the floor and play the PlayStation side-by-side all day long. Or lay against the pillows and read. Or eat chicken nuggets in front of TV. Or play indoor football, of which I am not fond, but sometimes I put on my headphones and sit down to write and pretend it’s not actually happening.
Noah doesn’t like people in large number. But he likes them in small numbers if they fulfill certain criteria.
When they are un-fickle and constant. When they are love him and shore him up for the times he has to spend with crowds. When they let him rest, so he is prepared when the time comes for crowds, and no safety in numbers.
“One who has unreliable friends soon comes to ruin, but there is a friend who sticks closer than a brother.” Proverbs 18:24