My son Nat never had a friend until he was fifteen. He is autistic, and so something as complicated as friendship was beyond him for most of his life. When he was little, any social foray I made with him—be it a story hour, a trip to the beach, or a birthday party—was full of worry. I never knew if he would have a tantrum or completely withdraw from everyone.
Over time, I guess I gave up on the idea that he would figure out about friends. Yet I didn’t want either of us to be a prisoner to autism, so I forced myself to get out there with him. Even though he had no idea what a friend was, he still needed to learn how to be with other kids.
When he was eleven, though, I discovered a Special Olympics gymnastics team in a nearby town. I wondered if this might be a way that he could be with other kids without the pressure of having to communicate. All he’d have to do is tumble and swing on gym equipment.
As I’d hoped, by the time he was fifteen, Nat had become very comfortable with the gymnastics class. And then D.J. joined the group. Like a stone thrown into a still pond, D.J. changed everything. He was Nat’s age and had autism, too. But he was different from Nat; he liked everyone—D.J. was a chronic hugger. Boys, girls, moms—D.J. hugged everyone. When D.J. made his way over to Nat I tensed up, ready to intervene. How would Nat react to such an in-your-face kid? Most kids shied away from Nat because of his shyness and outbursts.
But to my surprise, Nat just stood there being hugged. No apparent discomfort at all. In fact, he seemed to like D.J.—his boldness, his clear, unabashed affection. D.J.’s mother and I laughed, just a little embarrassed at the sight of the two tall, gangly, teenage boys hugging. But as I watched them, something loosened up in my knotted gut. Then D.J.’s mom invited Nat to come over to play, like it was the most natural thing in the world, and I felt almost giddy with delight.
We got to D.J.’s house soon after lunch. D.J. rushed downstairs to hug Nat. Once again, Nat let himself be hugged, looking very smiley. They bounded upstairs together, and before I knew it, Peter Pan was on the television. I knew I could leave Nat there because he really seemed happy. I felt a confidence in him that was new to me. No longer hugging, the boys were sitting side by side on the couch, watching Peter Pan. Could I trust this? It seemed like I could. I walked back to my car, wondrously alone. I was shaky with excitement.
For the next two hours, my eyes were glued to my watch.
When I picked Nat up I asked him right away if he’d had a good time. He looked at me—something he rarely does—and said, “Yes.” Loud and sure.
Five years later, I’m still in awe of that day. Because although I believe that true, loving friendship differs as much from person to person as snowflakes or fingerprints, I still wonder: why did it happen? What was the big secret? But I know there is no secret. Because after all, it was just two people, joyful in what they had in common, watching a movie, and hugging.