Monkey has a friend.
Now, this is not exactly a first; Monkey has always had friends. When he’s having good days, he is charming and gregarious and has no trouble ingratiating himself to others. The problems come in on the not-so-good days when he is easily frustrated and quick to anger. On those days, the not-quite-friends decide to play elsewhere, and the few select kids who’ve chosen to hang out with him anyway give him wide berth for the day. And maybe the next day, too. “He never wants to play with me anymore,” Monkey lamented of one longtime friend, the other day. “We like to do different things, I guess. Also I guess I get mad a lot.” (The kid in question is a saint for still being friendly to him at all, quite frankly.)
But now Monkey has a friend like him. I’ve been hearing about him all year but only in the last couple of months have I seen this pair in action, and it’s something to observe. They GET each other. They laugh and play for hours on end. They chatter endlessly and never tire of each other. Monkey and Lemur: dynamic Aspie duo.
The interesting thing to me is that while you might assume that all Aspie kids would get along well, there are of course many different flavors/manifestations of Asperger’s and everyone has different personalities. I have seen Monkey spend time with another Aspie and bicker away and later tell me he doesn’t ever want to play with that kid again. So it’s not a given by any means that a pair will get along just because they both have Asperger’s.
Monkey and Lemur are similar in their interests and their senses of humor. But where Monkey can be explosive, Lemur is relentlessly cheerful. I have never seen them argue, and indeed I wonder if Lemur ever argues with anyone. They just have a wonderful time together.
So Lemur’s mom has been telling me about a group they play baseball with every Saturday morning, and she’d told me that they don’t keep score and there aren’t many rules and it’s “a great experience for everyone,” but I kind of brushed it off the first few times she brought it up. I want to tell you that the reason I rejected it was because I was worried about Monkey playing any sort of organized sport; although it’s been years since he played soccer, the traumas there are still pretty fresh in my memory. But that’s not the real reason.
The real reason is that it’s a group primarily aimed at offering a chance to play to kids who are developmentally disabled, and Monkey has two modes when it comes to Different: Oblivion and disgust.
My face burns with shame just typing that. Even though I know it’s just how he’s wired.
Lemur has a developmentally disabled older brother who’s in their class this year at school. And until Lemur and Monkey became friends (and Monkey had the opportunity to play at their house and see Lemur with his brother more), it pains me to say that Monkey was (unintentionally) cruel to this boy many times. Because he didn’t get it. He could not wrap his brain around why this child is slower, is harder to understand when he speaks, doesn’t get things. And whenever I tried to talk to him about it his response was always, “I just don’t like him. HE FREAKS ME OUT.”
What if I brought Monkey out to play baseball with a bunch of kids who would, in his words, “freak him out” and he was horrible to them?
But as Monkey and Lemur have spent more time together, Monkey has come to accept this other child and be very sweet with him. So this weekend when I called to invite Lemur for a playdate and was reminded of baseball, I found myself saying, “You know what? We’ll meet you there.”
Was Monkey interested in playing baseball? He wasn’t sure. Well, was he interested in playing baseball with Lemur and his brothers? YOU BET. Sold! Off we went. We took Licorice with us, for good measure.
We found the park and wound our ways past the fields filled with uniforms and organization and rules. Towards the back of the complex was the field we wanted: The one with kids from 5 to 18, the one where kids twirled in the field, plucking grass and humming songs, the one where kids were perched over home plate, swinging as many times as it took to get a hit.
When Lemur’s family appeared I suddenly realized how ill-prepared I was. “Oh my God,” I murmured to his mom, as all four boys ran off, “I didn’t bring anything. Monkey doesn’t even own a glove.”
“Oh, that’s all right,” she said, waving my worries away. “We all share. Here, I’ve got one he can use.” She called Monkey over and helped him try on the glove, which turned out to be no small feat as—I cannot believe this (can I have my citizenship revoked for admitting this?)—Monkey has never put on a baseball glove before and had a hard time figuring out where to put his fingers.
Once it was settled on his hand, Lemur’s mom tossed him a few balls to catch and he got the hang of it pretty quickly. Then she herded the boys out into the field and let them take turns catching (or more often, chasing) grounders. I stood outside the cage with Licorice, while the kids who were waiting to bat took turns poking their fingers through the chain link to pet her.
After some “fielding” (read: standing in the outfield together, singing songs and marching around), the boys came in to bat.
Lemur and his younger brother both took their turns, then Monkey was up. Lemur’s mom later told me that he’d turned to her and whispered, “But I’m afraid of the ball,” before she got him situated over the plate, arms in position. She’d reassured him that the coach was a very good pitcher and the ball wouldn’t hit him. He took a couple of practice swings and then said he was ready.
The pitcher lobbed the ball—high and soft—and Monkey narrowed his eyes and swung.
It wasn’t much of a hit, really. In “real” baseball the pitcher probably could’ve jogged a few steps to the side and scooped it up, and made the easy pass to first for the out. But he hit it, and he ran, and OH MY GOD how he grinned as we shouted, “GO MONKEY GO!!”
On the other side of the fence, untangling my dog from where she’d wound her leash around my legs, I burst into tears. I quickly unwound Licorice and wiped my face, and looked up in time to see Monkey dancing on first base and giving me a thumbs up. I returned my own thumbs up and shouted, “Do you know what to do next?”
“Sure, I’ve played this on the Wii a thousand times,” he called back, now the consummate baseball expert. “You just keep running counter-clockwise each time someone hits the ball!” Obviously.
The next batter took a while to connect, so Monkey danced, squatted, and rubbed his hands in the dirt while he waited. But once the hit happened, he was off like a shot to second, and then third. The hit after that he brought it on home, and did a victory dance complete with high-fiving Lemur and his brothers and several other nearby players.
At the next change-up Monkey was “assigned” to first base, where he made sure the bag was dirt-free and the grass was evenly plucked. Imagine my surprise when a grounder headed his way and he stopped his small-scale landscaping to run after it, scoop it up, and then tag the base just ahead of the runner. The coach reminded him that the runner would still take the base and I braced myself for the “that’s not fair” or “but I got him out!”, but he just shrugged and said, “Cool!” and threw the ball back. Then he high-fived the runner and went back to his grass-grooming.
I teared up again, and was grateful for the next influx of children wanting to pet Licorice, to distract me.
One of the players was a friendly teenager who was completely enamored of Licorice, but Licorice was a little bit scared of him. He watched her run up and lick all of the little kids and was clearly hurt that she didn’t seem to like him as much. So as Monkey and Lemur ran off again, I explained to our new friend that Licorice is sometimes scared of men, maybe because some had been mean to her in the past, and that if he came and sat down on the ground with us she’d probably feel more comfortable. He did and Licorice slowly warmed up to him, finally sitting right next to him and allowing herself to be petted.
“I really like dogs,” he told me. “I am very gentle with them and I would never, ever hurt a dog.” I assured him that I was sure he never would. “Why would anyone hurt a cute little dog like this?” he wondered. “She’s just so nice. And I am being nice to her. She likes me now. I think she likes me a lot! Does she like me a lot?” I assured him that she certainly did. “We’re friends now,” he told her, giving her a gentle scratch under the chin. “You don’t have to worry.”
When it was all over, I asked Monkey if he wanted to go back next week. “YEAH!” he said. “Because I am really good at baseball now!” Lemur’s mom and I exchanged a look and stifled our giggles, and I told him we could certainly do that.
We said our thank-yous and our goodbyes, and just before I headed off with Monkey and Lemur in tow, Licorice’s new friend asked if I would bring her back next week. “Absolutely,” I told him. “Licorice is looking forward to it already.” He smiled and Monkey told him that it was very nice to meet him and he’d see him next week, and then we were on our way home for grilled cheese sandwiches and an afternoon of caterpillar hunting.
I am kicking myself for not having taken him sooner.