We are driving in the pouring rain down a windy road lined on both sides by Dogwoods decorated with orange and red colored drupes. Ruby is leaning her head against the side of the car, her almond-shaped eyes watching the foliage pass in a blur of wet and green.
Why aren’t there side rails on the road? Can’t we fall off the side?
We have driven down this road every Saturday for the last two years, and every single time we head down the hill Ruby asks this same exact question. Always, her head is cocked, brown hair skimming a shoulder, eyes lit as if a small fire is catching the edges of her imagination. Ruby crafts worry like a fine artist.
When we reach the entry to the bridge that will carry us across the water, she tells me about the tiny islands she can see in the middle of the river, points out the small white fishing boats that bob up and down on the inky water like quarter notes in a nocturne. Sometimes from the bridge we can see the snowy peak of Mt. Hood seemingly painted behind the architecture of the city.
What will you do if the bridge falls down while we are driving over it, Mom? Will you save me first?
This child, who is so predictable in her routines, has completely blown apart my idea of what Autism is. When as a tiny overall and hat wearing toddler she was diagnosed, my biggest fear was that Ruby would never have friends. My assumption was that she would never be able to express love or empathy, that she would never be able to communicate with another child.
And it is true that at that young age Ruby existed only in her own world. Other children were just objects to push past to get to that shiny red toy on the table. The accidental touch of another child could spark a blaze of hot tears. The feeling of a smooth doorknob or the texture of a painting could hold her attention for much longer than the face of any person.
But after many months of speech therapy and occupational therapy, Ruby was ready for something more. She was regulated enough that she was starting to show less anxiety around her peers. She made fledgling attempts at connecting. One day at the park I saw her approach a group of children and, while looking down at her shoes, say in the softest voice I am Ruby. The children didn’t see or hear her so she walked away, staring up at the leaves rustling against the woven net of bark.
That summer we enrolled Ruby in a social skills therapy group run by an amazing therapist who really understands the challenges kids on the Autism spectrum face in social situations. Finding this group was one of the greatest gifts because not only did Ruby start to grow in leaps and bounds, but she met Eliza, her first true friend, her steady bridge to companionship.
I’m not sure how to adequately describe Eliza other than to say that I’m in love with her. Her mother writes beautifully about raising this girl who has more than her share of struggles in schools and with peers. Eliza is brilliant, kind, and befuddling. I have never known a child who is more unabashedly and purely herself. Picture a beautiful girl with long, wavy hair exploring the uneven terrain of a shallow riverbed. Mud, tadpoles, dirt, water and the lilt of a girl’s voice singing. I love Eliza’s observations about the world. But what I love best about Eliza is the fact that she understands Ruby better than anyone else.
I can’t tell you how these two girls fell in love with each other, or if it happened slowly or quickly, because it seems that there was never a time that they weren’t friends. Here are two children with Autism who can spend hours playing together, who can have normal conversations, who sneak off to have a smooch or a hug.
When my mother died last year, the person who gave Ruby the greatest solace was Eliza. One day Ruby ran upstairs with my phone after we had called Eliza. I was downstairs working on my computer when I got a message from Eliza’s mom telling me that Ruby was crying to Eliza about how much she missed her Mimi. Whenever Ruby is having a rough day the first person she wants to talk to is “Sissy.” She considers Eliza her sister.
My feelings about Eliza’s parents will have to be saved for another day, but I will say briefly that they are Catchers. I feel like I can talk to David and Sarah about anything. (And nothing grosses Sarah out. Ever.) I feel like they are part of the reason why Ruby is doing so well. They are the village that I have always wanted. Most of my family lives on the other side of the country. David and Sarah are like family. Having family and a village is so important when you have a child with Autism.
But the most important thing to a child (and his or her parents) is a friend. I thank my lucky stars for Eliza because she is a true friend.
Photos of Ruby & Eliza courtesy of David Friedman