“All female bears defend their cubs. If a female with cubs is surprised at close range or is separated from her cubs, she may attack. An aggressive response is the mother grizzly’s natural defense against danger to her young.” –British Columbia Ministry of Environment
Oh, how I wanted to be a mama bear, and with one swipe of my massive paw knock down the creature who was threatening to hurt my precious cub. But I wasn’t a bear, and all I could do was stand there, unseen, and listen to this scornful eight year-old girl tell my Katie, who had run up, all smiles, and asked to sit next to her in class, “No! I don’t want to sit with you! Go sit somewhere else!”
Holding my breath, I waited to see how Katie would react. She mounted a feeble protest: “But you’re my friend, Jana, and I want to sit with you.”
“Well, Sadie is my best friend, and we don’t want you sitting with us!” And with that pronouncement and a flip of her blonde hair, she trounced away arm in arm with the favored Sadie, leaving my heart in my throat and my eyes full of tears as I watched Katie try to find a seat in the classroom. Fortunately, there was an empty chair next to another friend, and when I had seen Katie sit down and had satisfied myself that she was all right, I stepped out, feeling shaken and heartsick.
I know, I know. That’s what girls do. I remember, not just from my own growing up days, but from years of watching and teaching other people’s children and observing the tiny kingdoms and alliances that form and reform as they feel their way along the slippery social ladder to adulthood. But Katie is special, and I’m only just now aware of how frightened I am for her as I watch her grow and navigate her way through a world she may not ever fully understand.
Man, this is hard to write. But…do you remember that one kid in school? The one who, though he was really smart in book ways, just didn’t get it when it came to what really mattered to the rank-and-file school aged set, the one who never mastered the complex steps and turns in the dance of social survival? He was the kid who always wanted to be friends, but didn’t quite know how. The one who sat by himself at lunch and read, because books were a lot easier to understand than people. At best, the others gave him a wide berth. At worst, well…you remember the worst.
I’m afraid that Katie is that kid.
And when I think of what that kid goes through, it makes me want to cry.
I think I’ve told you before that Katie has Asperger’s Syndrome. It’s a disorder that falls somewhere on the high-functioning end of the autistic spectrum. Children with Asperger’s are often highly intelligent and focused, but they lack the innate ability to negotiate social interactions. Most of us are naturally, almost unconsciously, able to interpret the emotions and motivations of others through a broad range of nonverbal cues–facial expressions, tone of voice, body language–the indefinable factors telling you that someone is bored with your story, or irritated under their polite words. But for those with Asperger’s, there is nothing natural or easy about it. They think concretely, not abstractly, so things like subtexts and double meanings and implications are completely unknown to them. Unspoken cues and their many interpretations have to be memorized. Even “common sense” issues like personal space, reciprocal conversation, and coping with their own emotions are challenges.
On the surface, the waters are still. My beautiful girl is smiling, happy, and a delight to be around. No one who meets Katie for the first time would even suspect that there was anything different about her. But the kids know…they always do.
I’ve met many other parents and their children who are dealing with more severe disabilities than Katie’s. Believe me, I know how blessed I am to have a healthy child, whole and happy and able to say “I love you, Mom!” and mean it. Sometimes I am amazed at how far God has brought Katie–from the toddler who didn’t speak, or even seem to know we were there, to an affectionate, intelligent first-grader who barely stops talking for long enough to breathe! From the first moment we heard the phrase “autistic spectrum” all the way up to today, a day that Katie spends completely mainstreamed in a “normal” first grade classroom, I have been witness to so many glimpses of grace and the miraculous that it would take a great leap of logic not to have faith. So I hope it doesn’t sound horribly ungrateful to say that, in rare moments, when I’m looking at the hard line between Katie’s dreamy world and the sometimes harsh reality that the rest of us live in, I wish for a more visible manifestation of Katie’s challenges–something I could point to and say, “Here’s my wonderful girl, world! See? She’s special. She’s different. So, please, be gentle with her spirit; don’t break her.”
And some days, in prayer, I ask Him why. He always answers.
I returned when it was time for Katie’s class to end and slipped quietly in through the back door. It turned out it was Katie’s turn to be the special helper that day, and she was finishing up the helper’s last and most important job: to pick the student who had behaved the best to receive an extra treat to take home. She considered it for a moment, and then, to my shock, she pointed at Jana, who grinned broadly and stepped forward to claim her prize. Parents flooded in to pick up their kids a moment later; I collected Katie and started making my way out through the crowd.
When we got to the car, I kneeled down to look into Katie’s eyes and said, “Honey, I saw the way Jana treated you when you got to class.” She hadn’t cried at the time, but now a freshet of tears burst forth as she confessed, “She didn’t want to sit with me, Mom!” I hugged her for a for a few moments while she sobbed and then dried her face and asked her the question that was on my mind, “Katie, why did you choose Jana to get the treat after she was so mean to you?”
She just looked at me as if I was the one who didn’t get it and said, simply, “Because I like her.”
Thank You, Lord. I can’t imagine what you saw in me that you thought made me worthy of raising this astonishing girl. In four words, she reminded me of the way You love, absolutely and without conditions, even when we are pushing You away with a surly “No! I don’t want You around!” While the mama bear in me was growling, Katie was reaching out with kindness to someone who had hurt her. Sounds like something a carpenter I know would do.
I think I get it now, Lord. Or at least I’m starting to.
I have a feeling the lessons have just begun.