Smiling Success: Mastering the Art of the Group Picture


We are only days into the new year, and I find myself still reflecting on the last one. 2015 was a full year for us — full of adventure and happiness, full of challenges and obstacles and, of course, with smidgens of the usual hardship and sadness that a year in any human life brings. We grew and stretched in all the ways we should.

For PJ, 2015 was a complicated year. School, in particular, has been both his greatest achievement and most fervent nemesis. While his academic skills have increased in leaps and bounds, his behavior has remained a challenge. Some of it is the program, and some of it is the limited verbal, social and coping skills PJ himself brings to the table. He is a child who can read and spell well above his age level, is a math whiz, and can put together a 100-piece puzzle. He can't tell me about his day, voice his upset or frustration or hold a conversation with a peer.

But we're getting closer. In 2015 we finally got correct, productive therapy in place for PJ, and it has made a huge difference. The biggest change is that PJ is starting to make connections with his peers. Although his speech issues are the biggest hurdle, his interest in others has expanded enough for him to know all of his peers' names, understand their likes and be able to participate in games and play.

It all started with after-school pick up. The special ed kids are not dismissed with their neurotypical peers (don't even get me started on that). Instead, they are dismissed from the other side of the building, along with the preschool class. This leaves a lot of empty space in PJ's chances to socialize with the kids in his kindergarten class. But thanks to some late birthdays, PJ has a a few friends from his last year of PreK still in the class. The lingering nice weather, perhaps, contributed to the start of a game of tag that would break out among the kids as the parents chatted. A lot of days, PJ and I have to hustle to therapy. But on one of the days that we had time to spare, one of the kids asked PJ to join them.

I was a little nervous. Nervous that PJ might get too rough, that he would not get the gist of tag, that he would bolt into the street. Tag, while not rocket science, is a social game. PJ is not a kid who always gets social things. But under the guidance of his sweet school friends, he was off. He laughed as he swirled about the sidewalk, making eye contact with his friends to initiate a chase. It might look like a typical scene for more parents, but for me, it looked like a field of unicorns.

The rest of the students were dismissed from the other side of the building and trickled by as they walked home. A boy that I recognized from PJ's class stopped and cheerfully said, "Hi, PJ!"

PJ stopped running. "Hi, Sean!" he returned.

"Oh, my God, did you hear that?" I exclaimed to my friend. Nobody else had really noticed, but my heart was in my throat. An appropriate social interaction. It's like the Golden Chalice of Autism, and not a cup I thought I would get to sip from. But it was happening.

One of the parents pulled out her phone, and the kids gathered for a picture. PJ hadn't really mastered the art of Participant in a Group Photo yet, but the kids slung their arms around his neck anyway, and they smiled their faces off.

That was the first day that I saw the culmination of something that had been a slow burn for PJ. There had been flashes since the summer — delightedly playing with his cousins, a mud puddle playdate with a school buddy and the summer staple "Group Jump Into the Pool." These little moments drifted by and soon, it became a montage of what PJ's life could be like, after all. There will be friends. There will be love. And it may not look like what friends and love have looked like for me, but either way, he's smiling. He's happy.

Over the winter break, a few of PJ's friends got together at the local bounce place to have some fun and blow off some steam. The place was a zoo, with kids flying everywhere. The kids were a hot, sweaty mess when we all sat down to have some pizza. Of course, the phones came out, and the group pictures were snapped. The kids obligingly scooched in together, ready with cheese faces and smiles. Without prompting, PJ hopped up and linked arms with his friend on the end, ready to be part of the group. This may look nothing like what friendships look like for a typically developing kindergartner. For me, it was the world. It was a little awkward, but he got it. He has mastered Group Picture.

Brie Latini is a South Jersey writer and mom. This post is adapted from her blog ( . . . a breezy life).


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