Milo’s sensory issues dictate his sartorial choices. His dresser is full of elastic-waist fleece pants (known as “the good pants”) short sleeve t-shirts and boxer briefs. The only shoes he wears are crocs. If it snows he favors a hat and a zip-up jacket. If an occasion calls for dressing up he consents to a t-shirt with a tuxedo printed on it. He sleeps in his underwear. And that, is that.
So his sister’s bat mitzvah at the end of September presented a problem. He could wear his usual clothes, but my daughter would be mortified. Luckily, my friend K had the answer. She would take Milo shopping. She has been talking to him about this for months. They drew up a contract and had a judge “notarize” it. Milo agreed to shop for appropriate bat mitzvah attire if K agreed to sign her 2 sons up for a monthly video game service. This was proof of Milo’s trust in K and his love for her sons (also, his generous nature).
On Wednesday, me, Milo, K and K’s older son L went to the mall. L and I ran an errand at the apple store, checked out the sale room at Anthropologie (okay, he played Minecraft on my phone while I checked it out) and then settled into the kid’s section of Barnes and Noble. Within an hour, K texted to say that her mission was accomplished and they were ready for lunch.
K got Milo to agree to a pair of khaki pants with a blue button-down shirt and a belt. He picked out a pair of navy canvas shoes with an orange sole (his absolute favorite color) and a Bruno Mars blue and khaki fedora. She texted me pictures of a smiling Milo admiring himself in the dressing room mirror, and of Milo goofing in the hat section of Nordstrom. She reported that early on Milo said to her, “you know this is hard for me.” And K said, “Yes, I know it’s really hard.” She was sincere. She listened to him. She validated his feelings. They talked about Milo’s love for his sister and how much he wanted to do right by her at her bat mitzvah. K kept him laughing. She made him comfortable. Milo trusts K. It’s that trust that carried them through the challenge of buying “real” clothes.
The four of us had a long lunch at an awful mall restaurant but it included a giant pour of white wine for me and an icy martini for K. The boys played Minecraft and told jokes. I didn’t want the day to end.
On Thursday I took Milo to meet a child psychologist who runs social skills groups for special needs boys. Milo’s talk therapist suggested this. I agreed because Milo’s popularity has steadily declined as he grows up. He has four loyal friends. K’s son D who is like a cousin, my friend B’s son E, who is also like a cousin, my friend H’s son H who is the sweetest kid on earth, and J, who Milo met in Hebrew school. Every one of these kids is a year, if not several years younger.
I’ve posted before about Milo’s struggle with friendship, how he clearly wants and needs social interaction but how his unpredictable and explosive behavior sabotages these relationships. So off we went for his “intake” for the social group. The office was bright and colorful, with toys, cushions and drawing materials in the waiting room. But Milo’s body stiffened as we walked in. He had brought a Lego “Hero Factory” monster to “share” because “sharing is friendly.” The psychologist, S, is a young man, physically fit, wiry, with a wide, welcoming smile. He was wearing shorts and running shoes. Milo disliked him on sight.
I might have inadvertently screwed this meeting up before-hand. On the drive over Milo asked, “So, he runs friendship clubs for a living?”
“No, he talks to kids for a living, like Dr. R.”
“Oh, is he a friend of Dr. R’s?”
“Well, Dr. R thought we should meet him.”
“Okay, I trust Dr. R.”
Dr. R has the bearing of Mr. Rogers. He’s older, mellow, comfortable. He wears glasses and wide wale corduroys. Dr. R lets Milo mess with his ipad while they talk. This method of distraction has been so effective that Milo’s psychiatrist tried it, at Dr. R’s suggestion, and finally stopped reporting that Milo was suicidal. It turns out that Milo reveals more about his feelings when he’s looking at something other than your face. If you think about it, this is true for most kids. Consider the profound conversations you’ve had while driving.
S, the friendship club leader, took Milo into a special play room for about 10 minutes before Milo came charging out.
“He says that we can’t have electronics at the friendship club.”
S had explained that they could bring electronics to show and tell but that he wanted the friends in the friendship club to play together without electronics. To look at each other, and to “interact.” S never confessed his disdain for the technology kids like Milo love, but Milo could sense it. Milo dug his heels in. S tried nobly to get Milo to understand how the group would work and why the rules are what they are. Milo said, “I want to go home” over and over again. S and I tried together to engage him. He would momentarily relax, laugh, seem okay, and then return to his mantra, “I want to go home. Can we go now?”
At one point Milo left the building. Then he came storming back with a story of two menacing characters who tried to kill him. After that he let it rip, screaming, stomping, fists clenched, snorting, spitting accusations of how much everyone is against him. It was so regressive. It wrecked me. But, I stayed calm. Certainly S had seen this before. I told Milo to wait in the car. I turned to S. He looked shaken. Maybe this won’t work.
In the car Milo asked, “You don’t think I have friends?”
“I have lots of friends. “ And he listed 10 names. The first 4 were his younger friends. The next 6 were boys from school who never call him for playdates or stop by the house. They weren’t friends. I didn’t know what to say so I didn’t say anything. Milo started to cry. He was in the back set of the minivan. He slumped over out of my view and wailed. “Why don’t I have friends?”
Oh crap, what have I done?
That afternoon Milo and I took the dog for a hike. Milo was revved up. He told me the entire story behind Sonic the Hedgehog including all of the other hedgehogs, their powers, their trials, their wounds and their victories. I don’t think I said a word. We walked, he talked. My already broken heart broke further. I was thinking that he doesn’t even know when he isn’t having a conversation. He is so socially unaware. How will he ever make and sustain friends his own age?
The next day Milo and I picked up his friend J and drove to a small town two counties away. Milo and J spent the entire drive discussing video game techniques. I could hardly stand to listen it was so mind numbingly boring. But they were enthralled. And it was an actual conversation, back and forth, give and take. Milo seemed to be reading J’s cues just fine and responding appropriately. We had lunch at a soda shop. We tried the donuts at the bakery next door (“yuck” said the 8 and 9 year old connoisseurs.)
We saw the exhibit, “The Art of the Brick” – incredible, emotional sculptures made from regular Legos. The boys were transfixed. They ran from room to room shouting, “Look at this one!” and “Take our picture, take our picture.” The exhibit ended in the front room of the next door children’s museum. The boys weren’t ready to get back into the car, so I paid the $15 fee and we went into the children’s museum.
I sat down on a bench and closed my eyes. I figured I’d grab 15 minutes of solitude before they got bored and wanted to go. But the museum had the objects necessary to create a Rube Goldberg, and the boys went to it. For 3 hours they worked together with velcroed tubes and ledges to build a way for a small purple ball to travel across the wall, down a ways, bounce back up and then free fall into a bucket. When they had it down I videotaped it for them. They explained their strategy and how it took teamwork to make it happen. They hit the indoor climber, drove the firetruck together and creek stomped in the outdoor playground. They left tired and happy.
We investigated another donut shop “The best ever!” and took J home. Alone with Milo I said, “Wow, what a great day we had with J.”
“Well, you know mommy, he is MY FRIEND.. . .he’s my GOOD FRIEND. I’m GOOD at being HIS friend and he is good at being mine. Because mommy, I have friends, I know about friendship.”
We’re gonna skip the social skills group. I don’t think Milo needs to learn how to read other kids, or how to be interactive. I think he knows these things the way more typical kids know them. It isn’t lack of knowledge that gets in his way socially, it’s his lack of impulse control, his low self esteem, and his fury. He’ll succeed socially when he learns to manage his illness.
I’m looking forward to that day.