I have lost many so-called friends after my child was diagnosed with Autistic Spectrum Disorder (ASD).
Some of them vanished overnight. Others gradually faded away, their inventive excuses taking their place.
Gone were the phone calls, the play dates, invitations to birthday parties, and dinners. If we ran into each other, the greetings were often awkward and hasty, full of questions they didn’t want answers to. “How are you?” “How’s it going?” “I’m good, thanks.” “See you later.” Maybe never, I thought. When you start talking about the weather or wish each other a quick Happy Diwali before rushing away, you know your friendship is pretty much on life support, and it’s time to pull the plug.
I guess in some ways the avoidance was mutual. If people felt uncomfortable with my son, I couldn’t be friends with them because he is my son, I love him deeply, and he is part of my life, and to avoid him is to avoid part of who I am.
A couple of friends remained—the ones who continued to be the same with me, the ones who offered me their support and their strength, the ones who wanted to know my son, really get to know him, and took the trouble to understand him.
Interestingly, one of them has a child who is exactly my son’s age. I thought she would be one of the friends I would eventually lose, because the endless comparisons would wear me down. But because I am able to love my son for who he is, somehow it worked out. I find I am comfortable with kids his age doing things he can’t do.
On my friend’s part, she has always treated him as any other kid, and she doesn’t get hung up on labels.
Because she has been so open to him, her kids are too, and if he does something different or weird, they just shrug it off. They try to include him in their games, while she and I have tea. Kids aren’t born with prejudices. They are taught prejudice systematically by adults.
In just a few months after my son’s diagnosis, my social life came to a stand still. In some ways it was a relief. It felt better to have a blank slate than one cluttered with pointless scribbles. Yes, I felt isolated at times. What I did not know then was that endings can sometimes lead to new beginnings.
I reconnected with an old friend I had lost touch with. Because I was so open about the challenges in my life, she began to reciprocate and confide about her own struggles. Gone were the superficial exchanges about school fundraisers and home renovations. We began to talk about things at a much deeper level. Then we began to wonder—did we really know each other back then? Thus began a process of mutual interest and discovery, as each began to reveal to the other previously unknown facets of her life and personality. What was once a sweet childhood friendship had truly come of age to become a deeper, richer relationship.
Then there is a cousin I had never been close to. I felt we didn’t share any interests, weren’t on the same wavelength. As she became aware of our new challenges, she reached out and offered to help. I was appreciative, but hesitant to open up. Then it dawned on me. You can find an instant connection with some people, but you have to work at it with others. When you find someone who is willing to support you in times of trouble and lend a helping hand, you realize their friendship is precious, and you can make something meaningful out of that relationship.
My son’s diagnosis has transformed my attitude towards friendship. Before, people were my friends because they were in the same place and time. If we examine our relationships, I am sure many of us will find that we have ended up with “friends of convenience;” they belong to the same church/temple, their kids go the same school, they live in the same neighborhood, or come from the same part of the world.
The friends I have now share my values.
My friendships have transcended place, time, and culture. They have sustained me, enriched me, made me whole. They have opened my eyes to new ways of looking at the world. They have renewed my faith in the innate kindness of human beings, allowed me to rest my head on their able shoulders, to place my trust in their helpful hands. They have helped me discover places inside me I might never have known or visited, places of quiet comfort and strength that lie in the corners of my heart.
Shanti Kurada is a freelance writer. She lives in Fremont with her husband and two kids.