One of the things we know about kids with FASD is that they have a huge problem relating to their peers, that they tend to be socially immature and awkward. Our son is no different. But while I know how our son is affected by FASD, sometimes the reality can be hard to watch.
I took both the boys to the swimming pool today, our son with FASD and his older brother, who does not. While I’m used to watching our younger son play alongside rather than with the other kids, I was struck by it today in a way I have usually stopped being.
The two boys rushed into the pool ahead of me. It was fun swim time, so there was lots of play equipment. Our son immediately threw a ball in the deep end and dived in after it. He got out and repeated this. And again. And again. Meanwhile his big brother began a game with the four kids from our son’s class. Kids who our son was ignoring. Kids who have long since learned that our son will usually not be part of their games, and who for the most part no longer try to draw him in.
Fun swim at our pool comes in two 45 minute sessions, and our son never once really engaged with his friends during the first period. Instead, like a much younger child would, he played alongside them. He mostly ignored them, and they got on with their games. From time to time he joined them for a minute or two, and then went his way again. His big brother moved from playing with our son to playing with his friends, a sort of connection between the two sides, although no real connection was made.
Often, our son doesn’t really seem distressed by this state of affairs, he just seems to accept this is how life is. He wasn’t unhappy, he was absorbed in his games, diving, jumping, twisting, swimming under the water and coming up for air.
When his friends left, and there were fewer kids in the pool, he started diving backwards into the deep end. Another couple of kids he didn’t know were there, and without introducing himself or asking their names, he just said ‘Watch what I can do’ and did another backwards dive. The kids clearly thought this was a little strange, a little off, but one of them tried to do the same thing. After a couple of goes at this, our son meandered off across the pool and resumed his solitary play leaving the other two to get on with their own games. He began playing on the floats, jumping on and off, splashing around, alone amongst the others once more. For a few minutes, he persuaded two friends of his big brother to play piggy in the middle in the shallow end. But again the game palled, quickly and he returned to solitary jumps, dives, and swimming.
Soon the pool closed, and he clambered out and ran off to the shower. He pronounced the pool time the best in his life – a phrase he’s using a lot at the moment. And I was left to reflect on the solitary nature of FASD. How it seems to leave our son alone in a crowd of his peers.
Often he is on the edge of a group, looking in but never quite able to fully join in. At other times, like today, he’s again on the periphery but seemingly content. On other occasions, in smaller groups, usually with younger children, he’s happy to play a joint game. We have to try to guide him through the minefield that is his social life, his inability to read social signals from neuro-typical kids. His restricted ability to give appropriate social signals himself.
It can be heart-breaking to watch him when he’s trying but unable to connect. We help him find other kids he can play with. We guide him away from situations we know will be difficult. we push him towards social activities where he can do well – like singing with the choir, or performing in the school play, or doing gymnastics and trampolining. But in the end, we can’t change who he is and how his condition affects him. He has to make his own way in a confusing world with which he’s out of sync.
It’s hard to watch sometimes. It must be much harder to live.