Sometimes my interlocutor presses on: "Well, what about his classmates? They're his friends, aren't they?" Well, not exactly, would be my overly long-winded answer. When I have observed Charlie at school, he has simple, structured interactions with the other boys---they exchange greetings and small bits of information, they move around each other in the room, they slump in their chairs around a table and I think I can see Charlie's eyes maybe sliding to glance at whoever is next to him.
But friends can mean a lot more, can mean----for Charlie---a somewhat less direct kind of interaction that nonetheless means a lot to him.
Bowling with the three dark-haired daughters of an old friend of Jim's---who visited us at the beach and pool last summer---proved just the right way for Charlie to spend times with, yes, his friends.
One often hears how autistic children can readily engage in parallel play but need to be taught to play with other children, and this is certainly the case with Charlie. As he has gotten older, I have started to think that I ought never to underestimate the value of parallel play. Charlie may be playing alongside another child rather than directly with them, but I do think that Charlie, despite what his body language and other gestures might say, is thoroughly aware of others around him and, indeed, relishes this.
Long rows of long lanes, lined with gutters and rubber bumpers; big colorful balls; pins you roll the ball into and knock over: What could be more perfect for parallel play?
This was Charlie's first time bowling and at first Jim and I hovered, helping Charlie to carry over the ball, showing where to put his fingers, position the ball on the floor, push it. Charlie went through this a few times, eyes looking all over: We were at lanes 25 and 26 and there was something everywhere. Computer scoreboards, ads ("have your party HERE!"), kids and adults and balls, strange shoes to put on, pitchers of soda, pop music (and disco bowling far off to the right).
"Home Daddy bue bankett! Home Daddy bue bankett!" Charlie looked at me, looked at Jim, said that phrase time after time, slow and loud, and increasingly to the accompaniment of small and then bigger schrieks and some doubling-over at his waist, arms wrapped tight around him.
"Here's the ball, Charlie." I pointed out a red 8-pounder that Charlie picked up on his own, poking his long fingers into the holes between moans. "Over here, pal," said Jim and positioned Charlie's hands on the ball at the end of the lane. "Push!" S-l-o-w-l-y the ball went over the shiney floor and just knocked over a pin on the left side. "Ball," I said again and indicated the same red one as it came back out the chute and Charlie, with a minisculy smaller amount of us prodding, did so, then brought the ball over to the lane, positioned it on the floor, rolled it. He did this over and over again with us hovering in and out and, when Jim bowled a strike and as I found myself using my left hand to bowl because I felt a twinge in my right arm (I am right-handed----well, maybe not), it occurred to me that Charlie was standing to the side, now by the table, now by the girls' mother, now picking up the ball on his own and bringing it to the lane, taking it all in, and no word of home or the blanket.
Charlie went with Jim to get French fries and sodas and sat munching his own plate with the three girls sharing a bigger one. (Charlie made no attempt to eat any fries but his own.) The oldest daughter kept score in between bowling (and she got at least two strikes and a couple of spares); Charlie and the youngest girl (a preschooler who shares the same birthday as him) bowled together for two rounds.
When we had bowled two full games, Charlie was ready to go and offered hasty "byes" and fast backwards hugs after taking off his bowling shoes. "Bye Charlie," the girls said.
If you were to ask me now "Does Charlie have friends?", I think you know what the answer is.