My 13-year-old son Jonah and his new best friend, Sebastian, were in the pool the other day, armed with Styrofoam water guns, when things escalated. I wasn’t there, but my wife, Cynthia, told me the story later. It seems Jonah was getting the worst of the shootout and after a while Sebastian’s mother suggested her son go easy. He didn’t. I’m guessing the fact that Jonah found the whole thing hilarious played a part in his friend persisting. But Sebastian also had another, more big-hearted reason for drenching my son.
“I have to toughen him up,” Sebastian told his mother when she warned him to listen one last time.
What was implied but unstated in this response was that that’s exactly the kind of thing a best friend is for. He knows what you need even when you and everyone else don’t.
When I refer to Sebastian as my son’s best friend I’m assuming a lot. That’s because Jonah, who is on the autism spectrum, has never really had what kids today call a BF, and while he and Sebastian have a lot in common – both are on the spectrum, for starters – they’re not emotionally entangled in each other’s lives the way I remember I was with the boys I hung out with at Jonah’s age. Back then, the smallest slights were painstakingly analyzed; alliances changed like the weather.
Jonah’s relationships with his peers, while often awkward and untenable, are never neurotic. Whenever I worry about his deficits in social skills, I try to remember that, growing up, I never liked my friends that much, especially my best friends. Still, my wife and I are enormously grateful for Sebastian and to him. We take his point. Jonah could be tougher.
That’s why we decided to send him to sleep-away camp for a week this summer – to put him in an environment where he was required to be more independent and also, by necessity, spend more time in the company of children his own age than he ever had before. Incidentally, what I mean by “we decided” is that Cynthia saw summer camp as an opportunity for Jonah to be free from our invariably overprotective gaze while I saw it as throwing my son into the deep end.
I’m exaggerating, of course. Cynthia spent the months before camp assuring there was a backup system in place for Jonah. She hired a shadow for the week, to be at camp with Jonah 24/7. She also prepared Jonah for the experience and prepared the camp, which does not cater to special needs kids, for Jonah, and for his unique difficulties with conversation and social interaction.
Still, I remained skeptical. No doubt, I was projecting. I never went to camp or wanted to, mainly because I didn’t want to spend my summer being challenged by new activities or new people. After all, friendship is a test, too. And I was a loner by nature, a book-reader, a mama’s boy. Autism notwithstanding, I sometimes assume the same about my son.
But Jonah is home now and I’m happy to report I was wrong about him and camp. He did fine in the deep end – literally. The first test he took at camp required him to tread water for eight minutes; he passed easily. He also reveled in his introductory lessons in water-skiing, archery, and drums. He survived being stung by a hornet, too, wearing the tiny wound on his ankle home like a merit badge.
According to his shadow, Jonah also mimicked the Australian accent of one of his counselors, thus earning him the enduring admiration of his bunk mates.
“Did you have a best friend?” I asked Jonah his first night back.
“Evan and Abraham and …” he said, proceeding to name several more boys in his bunk – all potential new BFs.
As for his old BF, Sebastian will probably still test Jonah and try to toughen him up when they reunite. With summer camp over, that’s comforting to know.
Joel Yanofsky is a writer in Montreal, Canada. His latest book is Bad Animals: A Father’s Accidental Education in Autism.