Does my special needs daughter really eat lunch alone every day?

Guestpost by Robert Rummel-Hudson

Rob Rummel-Hudson has written for us before about his perspectives on special needs parenting. While this post from his blog especially relevant to parents of children with disabilities, we think parents of neurotypical need to read it, too…

It began with a simple question at the grocery store last night. We were choosing all the pieces for Schuyler's lunch and were trying to change things up a little. We wanted to get her some new drinks but were unsure if she would be able to open the bottles. Schuyler's polymicrogyria has some big features and some small ones, and one of its less frightening but still annoying impairments involves her fine motor skills. We asked her if she thought she would be able to open the bottle. She said she thought so, but still seemed a little unsure.

"Well, if you have trouble, you can ask one of your lunch friends to help out, right?" I asked, remembering that one of her teachers had mentioned how she thought Schuyler ate lunch with some friends.

Schuyler sighed and simply said, "No."

"Why not?" I asked.

"Because I always eat lunch by myself."

And there it was.

We told her that we'd heard that she had friends that she ate with, but she shook her head. "I eat by myself every day," she said. "No one will eat lunch with me."

…it never occurred to me to imagine her sitting at the lunch table all by herself while the mass of chattering classmates swirled around her, past her, without her.

It was an emotional ambush, this conversation, and it took the wind right out of our sails. I don't know why we were surprised by this variation on a sadly familiar theme in Schuyler's complicated middle school life, but of course we were. It's happened before, that thing where someone told us a Maybe Thing ("I think she eats with a little group of friends…" or "She could go on to live independently one day…") and our desperate parent brains translated it into a Definite Thing. We can't stand to think of her being alone, so we allow ourselves to believe that of course she's not alone. I've written about how Schuyler's relationships at school are different, but it never occurred to me to imagine her sitting at the lunch table all by herself while the mass of chattering classmates swirled around her, past her, without her.

I didn't know how she would react to the offer (I could only think of how I would have responded to a similar proposal in my youth), but I asked her if she would like for Julie or myself to come to school and eat with her. She surprised me a little by saying yes immediately. As we continued our trip through the store, she asked me again a few times.

"Are you going to come eat lunch with me?"

Later, as we unloaded the groceries from the car, Schuyler looked at me and simply asked, "Why doesn't anyone want to be my friend?"

Because there were some pieces of my heart still intact from her earlier confession about her solitary lunches. They needed breaking, too.

I wish I could say that Schuyler's situation is unusual, but any time I've mentioned this on Facebook or Twitter, I hear from other special needs parents and grown persons with disabilities about how yes, their kids had no real friends, certainly no neurotypical ones, or how they themselves had grown up thusly. Some writers with disabilities told me that as adults, they still struggled to find friends, or had given up altogether.

A recent study by Dr. Anne Snowdon shocked exactly none of us when it revealed that more than half of the Canadian children with disabilities that she studied had either only one friend or no friends at all. Only one percent of the kids she studied spent an hour a day with a friend. By the time they turn ten, social pressures diminish most of whatever efforts neurotypical kids may be making to connect with their disabled classmates. The window closes, and rarely opens again.

My reaction to that study was the same as many of the parents I heard from. I was mildly surprised that the number of special needs children who DO have friends was as high as it was, frankly. But then, these are polite Canadian kids who haven't been taught their whole lives that their value and that of their friends and social groups is measured by how very very exceptional they are.

In the Lord of the Flies world of middle school, they are all trying to keep up, and their world is one of communication, fast and fluid.

With all the loving adults whom she loves and who love her back so intensely, and with so many people on the Internet pulling for her, it's hard to imagine a kid like Schuyler having difficulty making age-appropriate friends. It's also unfair of me to blame her classmates, even though I guess I just did. These are twelve year-olds, they have so little experience with concepts like inclusion and compassion and intrinsic self-worth. In the Lord of the Flies world of middle school, they are all trying to keep up, and their world is one of communication, fast and fluid. They may simply lack the ability to slow down and connect with someone like Schuyler. I get that.

It's not easy for her, like it's not easy for most special needs kids. And while Schuyler seems happy enough, it is becoming clear that this matters to her more than she generally lets on. I feel like she's waiting on a solution from us. As she should.

We're exploring some mentoring programs that might be able to help, such as Best Buddies Texas. There aren't any middle school chapters in Texas at this point. Well, there ought to be. Maybe it's time there was one, and who better to lead that than Schuyler?

When Schuyler asked me why no one wants to be her friend last night, we brought in the groceries and sat on the couch. While she leaned against me, her head on my shoulder, I tried to explain the best I could that it can be hard for people to make friends with someone who is different like she is. It's not always that they don't want to, I said, but spmetimes they're just not sure how.

She seemed to understand why that might be, even before I said more. "They talk so fast," she said. 'I can't talk like they do."

I didn't have any great answers for Schuyler, and I didn't pretend like I did. I could only tell her that yeah, this is hard, but we'd think of something and we'd find a way to make things better. As has been the case many times before, she didn't seem disappointed by that sad, shitty answer. We could fight that particular monster another time. I think mostly she just needed to put it out there.

Rob wrote a follow-up post about eating lunch with Schuyler at her school. You can read it at his blog.