To set the scene. I am sick and grumpy. I could write a long description. I have. And I’ll keep it to myself. None of it noteworthy except it is the setting into which Julia’s terrible, awful, horrible day blossomed.
Tuesday morning, I wrote to Julia’s case manager at school:
“Julia has been complaining about lunch all weekend. Today, she should go to Trills. I’m not sure if she has been going the last few weeks. Other than today and Thursday (Peer Partners?), she wants to be able to sit with other kids. I’m not sure what can be worked out but I promised to ask you about it. Any ideas?”
“Julia has been going to Trills Mondays. Well, I guess her SEA could bring her to the cafeteria. What I see happening is that she will talk and not eat. She would need prompting to put food in her mouth and not engage in conversation, exclusively. She’s done that in the past and had to eat during class 6th hour. I really liked the structure of having her in the art room. Since she has the luxury of an adult with her both halves of lunch, I suppose she really could go where she wants. Again, I see this as not conducive to actually eating….But we can try it and see how it goes.”
“About lunch: Trills and Peer Partners take up Monday and Thursday. I think taking her to the art room two days a week is good. If she ever gets around to finishing her dragon, it would be great. That leaves Fridays . . . Am I right about this rundown?
So, what I think she wants is to eat in the “hall” but I appreciate the chaos of that choice and her ability to spend time eating. If she is having trouble eating lunch in controlled situations, the hall would be impossible. Can we both talk to her about this and see what kind of compromise can be worked out?”
“Yes, Suzanne. We tried it today in the hall. I will tell you how it went for her.”
I braced for what would come next. And rightfully so:
“So lunch did not go well, I guess. Julia was very upset, crying after. The issue seemed to be that she became increasingly obtrusive to her peers, who were visibly uncomfortable, eventually. Her crush  sits with the group she wants to sit with, so that also makes it more difficult for her to regulate her social interactions.
I did coach her very succinctly, immediately before lunch. I asked her to consider her conversation partner’s body language and whether they were talking to another person or not. The mantra I sent her off with was “a little bit of talking, a lot of eating and listening; a little bit of talking, a lot of eating and listening: a little bit of talking, a lot of eating and listening…..” Also, I don’t think the lunch group appreciated the adult presence. I want to make the interaction enjoyable for all.
I think she will get there, given some time. For the time being, it seemed like she did well for the first 10-15 min. 50 min is so long to resist one’s natural inclinations/ habits. I think we could try again, tomorrow. Julia can sit with the group for 15 min, practicing ” a little bit of talking, a lot of eating and listening”. After 15 min, she goes to the art room. Sound reasonable?”
Julia wrote in her after school journal:
“During lunch, I ate in the hallway with kids and I was totally upset that my best friends left me out so I started crying and got[ten] furious.”
After the drama, it was fortuitous that we had a session with our trauma therapist right after school. Julia was able to be furious and was able to describe, at least in part, what when on. She was angry that she could not get her peers to perform her vision of lunch. She was very angry that her crush paid no attention to her. She was in full despair that her life would never be any better. In so many ways, it sounded so very typical for a younger teen. But for the way her mind works.
During and after therapy, and for most of the evening, Julia raged, simmered and raged again. Some of the time, she verbally flailed. Some of the time, she despaired ever fitting into any group of kids. Some of the time, she wanted to just cuddle and be a very much younger kid. By bedtime, she was almost ready to talk sensibly. This morning, she wanted hugs and assurance that life would get better. The had been, of course, the worst day of her life. I agree. Never has Julia cared so much about the reception and responses of her peers. Never has she wanted and done something about her wanting so much interaction. Never has she understood how different she is. Never has she felt so rejected.
I went in during lunch time today to hang out with her in the art room and to talk to her SEA and case manager to figure something out. Julia was not unreceptive to suggestions but busied herself with her mache dragon long before we came up with any suggestions. And with 20/20 hindsight, we could see the error of throwing her into the deep end of school lunch; however, I doubt that Julia would have agreed to any half measure.
And so, her case manager will try to cobble together some sort of lunch bunch for at least weekly lunchtime interaction. Ah, if only Julia had been truly available to learn some of this when she was in fourth and fifth grade when this very thing was done for her. As the Cheer season ends, she has the opportunity to do a second speech therapy session with a therapist who is very tuned into Julia’s social challenges.
But for now, I alternate between two distinct feelings.
I am optimistic. Guardedly so, but just kinda’ gleeful. Julia is growing as a social person. She has shown more awareness of her feelings and the reactions of her peers than I’ve ever seen. True, she has very few social skills right now, but if she wants them, she will learn them. She has learned everything in her own time which has never been the same time as her typical peers. It will take a fistful of miracles for her to learn to be a good enough friend to make a friend but we’ve always needed miracles. And with a few more well placed miracles, friendships, relationships, girlfriends, best friends, boys even might be possible—a whole big and incredible world open up.
I am heart sick. Autism sucks. Until very recently, Julia’s longings for friends were about playing partners and in a pinch, I could fill the bill. And so much of the time, she was more than content to play alone. She misses every social queue—She can hardly understand when I am sick and need her help with supper and the dishes to get through the evening. It has been a cursed blessing that Julia has been unaware and uninterested in relationships. She has rarely noticed a slight, or the fact that everyone else had friends, went to parties, had someone to sit with, etc. Teachers and therapists have worked on her social skills for years and so much of what they’ve taught has run right through her without impact. Is it so much better for her to be aware and possibly unable to interact with others on a meaningful level? For many folks on the spectrum, relationship never happens.