I creep upstairs and peek through my daughter Amanda’s bedroom door, cracked open to let the cat in and out. The Little Mermaid Broadway soundtrack is playing. Her best friend, Ellie, is kneeling on the bed dressed in a gown, channeling Ariel and singing, “I don’t know when, I don’t know how, but I know something is starting right now. Watch and you’ll see, someday I’ll be part of your world!”
Prince Eric (my daughter, Amanda, wearing Captain Jack Sparrow’s costume from Pirates of the Caribbean) is lying on the floor, pretending to have been washed onto the beach.
Ariel hides behind a rock (a chair on the bed) as Eric stands and sings, “Where did she go? Where can she be? When will she come again calling to me?” Then he gazes toward the horizon (out the window).
“OK, now you’re Ariel and I am Eric,” says Ellie, and they swap costumes.
I sneak downstairs, smiling, thankful for the girls’ friendship.
Amanda made it to seventh grade without ever having had a true friend. She had acquaintances—kids she bowled with, did Special Olympics with, ate lunch with, said “hi” to in the halls school. But the spark that comes with friendship was not there.
As Amanda’s mother, I wondered if she would find a kindred spirit. It is a typical worry for parents. When your child has special needs, it’s more challenging.
Amanda has Down syndrome. She is included in school classes and activities. As she has matured the gap in interests and social interactions has become too large to sustain friendships with typical peers. A mom I know said, of her son with special needs, “He has many fans but no friends.” That is how it felt for me.
Amanda craved friendship.
She met Ellie at Special Olympics soccer. They gravitated toward each other. A three-year age difference and not being in the same school district made soccer practice the only time they saw each other. Sensing a budding friendship, Ellie’s mother and I organized activities for the girls.
It can be hard to find the time for purely social get-togethers. Looking back, I think my parents had it easy. My two best friends lived on my street. I could walk out my door, and within minutes I was with a friend. These days kids don’t seem to play in the back yard or on the street with whoever is around. They meet friends at activities that are often a ways from home. Thus driving, coordination and flexibility from parents are needed to create bonds.
It is so important for Amanda to have this in her life. Thankfully, Ellie’s parents feel the same way.
Your best friend can be the first time you feel love for someone outside of your family. You discuss school outfits. You critique movies and shows. You talk for hours about absolutely nothing. You find the same things silly. Your friend makes everything more fun.
You also learn to be giving. You learn to think of someone other than yourself. You learn how to have real conversations and how to behave socially. For all that you need a best buddy; role modeling with your younger brother just doesn’t cut it.
Amanda eventually joined the drama program Ellie attends. Acting, singing and dancing are the common loves that have cemented their friendship.
They arrive at my house, take their shoes off and head up to Amanda’s room. There they stay there for hours at a time. I hear music playing. I hear singing. I hear laughter.
That is not to say they always get along. One summer during drama camp they climbed into the back of my car to eat lunch. There was clearly something wrong. I asked Ellie how the morning went.
“Amanda and I are in a fight,” she said.
“What do you mean? You two should not be fighting, what is going on?” I said.
She proceeded to tell me Amanda wanted a certain boy all to herself. This certain boy was a favorite of Ellie’s as well.
I looked at Amanda with a stern face and said, “Amanda do you really want him all to yourself?”expecting her to laugh or say no.
“Yes, I do!” she answered.
So I gave the “best friends should never fight over a boy” lecture, all the while giggling in my head at this typical girl situation. Thankfully, they worked it out.
I have said to Ellie’s mom on more than one occasion, “Thank you for having Ellie so she could become Amanda’s best friend.” For I know that without Ellie, Amanda would still be waiting for that connection.
“Droid” says my cell phone. It is a text from Ellie.
“Hi Amanda, you are a silly goose. Love Ellie.”
I hand the phone over to Amanda. She texts back, “Hi Ellie, you are a silly goose too. Love Amanda.” p
Deborah Cavanagh lives in Manlius with her husband and two children. She has written for local organizations supporting children and adults with special needs and publishes the blog www.momofmanyneeds.com.