Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Odd Man Out

I had Bobby as a student when he was an 8th grader at the middle school. He is on the high-functioning end of the autism spectrum. He speaks well, is very book-smart (though he hated writing), converses well with adults, and loves playing his clarinet in the marching band (a nationally ranking band, I might add.) Personally, I liked Bobby alot. His organization skills (or lack thereof) left me tearing my hair out on a regular basis, but other than that, he was great.

Every now and then, I run into Bobby at the high school, as I did Saturda night, when Mr.4444 and I chaperoned a dance. As soon as I saw him, I said, "Hey, Bobby! How are you?" and he replied nervously, swaying a bit, "I don't know why I come to these things!!" I smiled and told him I was glad he was there and that I hoped he had fun. He disappeared into the crowd, looking much like the other young men in their dress shirts and ties, but lacking the confidence that usually comes with being "dressed for success."

I didn't give Bobby much more thought until Mr.4444 and I were assigned to the 2nd floor mezzanine, where we had a bird-eye view above the dance floor. From our perch, we could see all of the kids crammed up to the Dj's stage, as well as the smaller, separate groups around. It didn't take long for Bobby to come into our view; he was at the periphery of the group (figuratively, as well as literally.)

Bobby hovered around the outside of the massive crowd, every now and again stopping and making a gesture as if to almost tap someone on the shoulder to say something, only he never touched a soul. Instead, his hand would tentatively go up, then down, and up and down, and, defeated, he would move on. A few times, he cautiously stepped into the midst of small clusters of kids who gradually (though maybe not consciously) dispersed, their backs to him. He would then continue around the edges of the dancing mob, stopping now and then, trying to engage disinterested peers, and continuing his walk.

At one point, I noticed Bobby hovering near a beautiful young girl, again raising his hand tentatively to almost get her attention. Her eyes sparkled, her teeth shined, and her laughter was free for the group she was with. However, the group did not include Bobby, nor did it notice him. Knowing the young girl, I tried to call out to her telepathically, "Jenny, please notice Bobby. Just smile at him and say hi." Of course, she could not hear me. Just as Bobby took a bold step in her direction, she turned and walked off, arm-in-arm with two friends, innocently oblivious to the boy seeking friendship. It was heartbreaking.

From our vantage point on the next level, Mr.4444 and were filled with compassion for Bobby. We continued to watch as peer after peer acted as though he was not there. At one point, he approached two girls who listened as he said something but walked away with "that" look on their faces; the one that says, "What was he talking about?"

Later, as I sat talking to a young junior girl that I know, I brought up what we had observed. When I shared the story, Amy replied, "I know. That's normal; that's just the way Bobby is. He's like that all the time at lunch, too."

And my heart ached again, because it's not "who Bobby is." It's who we are; who his peers are.

Amy went on to talk about how annoying it is when she is "obviously" trying to do her homework, and Bobby comes up and starts singing a song to her. "But Amy," I said, "he's one of the nicest kids you'll meet." And he's autistic; picking up social cues doesn't come naturally to Bobby. However, if you simply told him, "Bobby, I'm doing my homework. I can't talk when I'm doing my homework," he would get it." Amy politely nodded, but I could tell she wasn't that interested.

Bobby doesn't fit in. Yes, he's weird. Yes, he says things that are not "cool" and sings songs to people (because he knows kids his age like music and he's trying to connect.) Like everyone else, Bobby wants to fit in. He just doesn't understand the rules. And no one his age has the patience to teach him. And the ironic thing is that he represents what all of his peers have at the deepest core of their beings at that age; the need to fit in, to belong to something (and sometimes, someone.)

Unwritten Social Rules for Semi-formal Dances:
*Only the un-cool kids (and freshmen) show up in the first half-hour that the dance starts.
*Dress shoes for girls are only for at dinner; they are taken off the minute the girls arrive at the dance.
*A boy's dress shirt should be ironed.
*A collared shirt means a dress shirt, not a flannel shirt with a collar.
*Dress pants for guys does not mean the best pair of jeans that you own; it means pants you have to iron and do not have pockets on the outside.
*If you must wear sneaks, at least make sure they are clean looking
*Girls slow-dancing with girls is okay. Boys slow-dancing with boys is just weird past 30-seconds or so. [No offense to gay men who might be reading this blog; it's just the rules that apply to this particular mostly-conservative area.]
*And (apparently) God-forbid you should smile or say hello to any special ed kids; their uncoolness might rub off on you....


  1. Unwritten laws. Nobody states them but everybody who's cool knows them. I never understood many of them myself and am only coming to terms with a lot of stuff now.

    I wish Bobby well. Like you say, it's not about who he is, it's about who we are.

  2. I only went to one Jr. High dance and absolutely hated it! I didn't care at all for the loud music blaring, and didn't have anyone to "chat" with, like I could have heard them anyway. I felt like a fish out of water. I can sure relate to poor Bobby. Hopefully he'll learn dances are no fun and won't put himself through that experience again.

    It was heartbreaking though to read how cruel the kids are to him. Very sad, and that even when you pointed it out, the girl didn't get it. We really do need to try to include everyone.

    I bet God feels like you did when he looks down on us and sees all the meanness going on here.

  3. Oh, that's just heartbreaking. And the reason that almost everybody who's ever attended high school has some baggage, I suppose. At about the 30th reunion, somebody comes up to you and says,"You know, I always wanted to ask you out."

    Everybody in high school wants to 'do it right' and they don't have time for analysis.

  4. You seem to have an excellent insight into Bobby's mind and others like him. Thank you for sharing that with me, as my brother has Asperger's.

  5. My heart aches for the Bobbies of this world, too. I have a young girl in my life named Ada who seldom speaks. The other kids think she is learning disabled. She is sharp. She can read better than most. And understands. But she doesn't like to speak, even at 12 years of age. That makes having friends kinda hard. To all of the Bobbies and Adas, we love you!

  6. I'm not use to having moderation turned on for your blog.
    Reading this story brings back the feeling odd moments as a teenager. Why we can't understand and accept that most all of us are feeling a little insecure at that age, I'll never know. This is one area that I wish kids would act more grown-up.

  7. My heart is breaking for Bobby, too. And selfishly, I'm fearful that my little guy will be the same in a few years. He's not autistic, but is "on the spectrum." Praying for these kids tonight.


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