It was obvious that his teacher was concerned. I wasn’t sure just which of the symptoms with which Noah’s disability manifested itself was her primary concern on this particular day. She began by saying, “Noah is very attached to you.” As I couldn’t really dispute that statement I just smiled and waited for her to continue.
She went on to tell me that their first unit had been about Friendship. I am sure this was the most proactive way to begin teaching social skills to a group of 9 special needs preschool children. While 6 out of the 9 children in that room were non-verbal to some degree, it was clear some children in that room would never master oral communication. So it was logical that in order to attune them to an environment filled with other children with whom it was hoped they would become attached to, and thus, find a desire to communicate with, the school year would begin by drawing their attention to friendship.
They were teaching them to be aware of their surroundings and the people therein. As few of them were able to speak, they allowed the children to point to pictures of their peers they’d taken with a disposable camera when asked the unit objective: “Who is your best friend?” The problem seemed to be in the fact that Noah would not respond to the question. As the teacher pointed to each picture she’d say, “Noah, is Malcolm your friend?” Staring at the floor with a polite back and forth shake of his head, Noah would indicate “No.” Undaunted the teacher would ask, “Noah is James your friend?” The response would be the same. The teacher said she had almost given up hope when Noah began to touch the file folder in which she was taking her anecdotal records. She allowed him to open the folder and he thumbed through a book I’d made about Noah called “All About Me”.
Silently he flipped the pages filled with pictures of his grandparents, cousin, teachers from church and pets until he found the picture for which he was searching. Turning the book around he mumbled, “bes fwend” as he pointed to a picture of me. She tried to explain to Noah that I was his mother and not his friend, but Noah was insistent that I was his best friend. As she finished this story, she gestured to the small bulletin board at the front of the room labeled “Friends”. I saw that in the lower left hand corner, my picture had been wedged between the board and the trim. She explained this was the only way Noah would engage in the Circle Time associated with this unit. I was his best friend and he would acknowledge no other.
Much time has passed since I sat cramped in a little chair at that parent-teacher conference. I’ve read tons of information on social skills development for the autistic child. We’ve had the play dates in which I stood behind Noah like a puppeteer in order to engage him with other children. If you were to ask him now, Noah could give you a list of people he considers friends. He’ll tell you about Clara, Grady, Bobby, Luke and Mr. James. But as for a best friend, that position is still reserved for his mother and no other. Until recently, this has been a cause of concern for me. Then I began to try and see things from Noah’s perspective – most of the time it honestly makes more sense and is usually always closer to God’s perspective.
Noah considers me his best friend for one reason only – fidelity. Fidelity is defined as “the strict observance of promises and duties; loyalty; adherence to fact or detail”. Anyone having read the DSM-IV can recognize the similarity between this definition and the characteristics of a person with autism. The only difference is the diagnostic manual frames these behaviors in the negative, not the positive. There you’ll read: “encompassing preoccupation with one or more stereotyped and restricted patterns of interest that is abnormal either in intensity or focus”. Now I fully appreciate the work and clinical expertise that went into the DSM-IV. Believe me when I say that I was thrilled when we were given the code “299” because it meant a pathway to assistance and help for us. But it also means that I must come to terms with how that diagnosis is going to frame my reference of Noah. And because I must add my faith in our Creator into the equation, I constant realigning my point of view on how much of Noah behaviors are correctable – or if I even desire them to be so. And the most bizarre twist of all is how in this road of “restricted patterns of interest” and exacting routine, a reciprocity has been born within me. Somehow, Noah has taught me faithfulness and fidelity.
Noah has found me faithful. We’ve been through a lot together. Sitting through hours of silence together drew us closer than all the hugs he couldn’t tolerate from me. Allowing myself to weep with him, showed Noah that I identified with his pain and uncertainty. Pushing Noah to achieve more has only always been possible if I would say to him, “I know you can do this and when you are finished I am going to say, ‘Noah I’m so proud of you.’” How these magic words have always been a comfort to him I don’t rightly understand.
But I think the part of me that Noah finds the most faithful is my willingness to allow him to be treasured without changing one thing about himself. Please don’t find me heroic in this - most of these moments are born out as I cover immense fear that Noah will be rejected for the person he is. Yet still, I want Noah to be able to be himself and be cherished for it. I believe it is this alone that has won me the place as Noah’s best friend.
It is really an interesting turn of events because his namesake is also one who “found favor in the eyes of the Lord”. I wanted my perfect little baby boy to be one with whom God would find favor because of his faithfulness. At the time, I could not have foreseen the hours of therapy and IEP struggles that would stretch out before me. I couldn’t have possibly known the road to faithfulness was paved with hours of learning as much as I could and then praying about what I’d learned. As it turns out, it has been Noah who has taught me to be faithful.
And he is, just as I had hoped, one of the most faithful friends you could have. Once you see Noah through a crisis and he can trust you, he is your friend for life. It doesn’t matter what you say to him, how you might forget or betray him, Noah will forever be faithful to a friend. He expects very little in friendship. For Noah, friendship is mostly about knowing a person is there and that he can trust them when in need. He requires very little, but gives much in return.
Just last night, Noah passed by the dining room table where I sat reading and stroked my hair as he said, “Here is my best friend.” What an unbelievable honor! I am awestruck each time he says it. Despite my faithfulness, I’ve done nothing to deserve the privilege of being known as “Noah’s Best Friend”. He so noble in character that, in comparison, I find myself humbled beyond knowing at his gestures of love and fidelity. He knows my every nuance. Don’t believe anyone who says the autistic child is incapable of emotional return. On the contrary, I think Noah has the capacity to feel more than the average human being. Without a word or a glance, Noah can read my feelings and no amount of faking it can fool him. His emotional telepathy is one of the most frightening and tremendous facets of his personality.
“Here is my best friend.” Those words still stubbornly lodge in my brain. But as I reflected this morning, I wondered if this is what we will experience when we see Jesus someday. I can imagine him surrounded by a crowd clamoring for his attention. Over someone’s head he sees me and stops his conversation and says, “Here she is, my friend!” How I long to be considered a friend of Jesus. And this side of heaven, I’ve found few that can show me what that looks like apart from Noah. I think his picture of fidelity and friendship have reshaped the way I believe Christ looks at me. And in addition to this, Noah has given me a great reward for the faithfulness he has guided me to develop – a place as his best friend. A greater honor, I could not ask.