One of the great things about international schools (and the reason I push so hard for them to admit Pudding), is that every kid there knows what it is like to be different. Sometimes we have had excellent teachers who worked hard to include Pudding. Sometimes, the kids themselves have stepped up. The last year here has been challenging in a number of ways, but one thing I never had to worry about was other students not accepting Pudding.
We don’t have any explicit social skills teaching here, for better or for worse, but Pudding does have an excellent aide to help her navigate the social world at school. Though her methods for interacting are sometimes perceived as unusual, Pudding has always been socially motivated. And where she has a will, she will always find a way.
Soon she had a close set of girls in her class who became friends. In class they would sit around her. At concerts, sports days, and assemblies they would support her, in a non-intrusive and accepting away. They found her level and they met her there. Her friend Ana* was a natural at this, perhaps having observed her mother, an occupational therapist who had previously worked with children on the autism spectrum.
Last year Pudding wasn’t allowed to participate in Spanish classes, which was a great source of frustration for us all. When I would collect her after lunch, she was often visibly (and audibly) distressed at having to leave her friends. One day her friend Sofia* drew her a picture of the two of them to let her know she was missed too. And so began a correspondence between the two, that continues to this day.
On days that Pudding had a hard time leaving, she now began sending notes to the kids going to Spanish lessons. And here is where things get really special- they sent them back. Concrete reminders that she was accepted and missed. She belonged. I would often find caring notes and pictures from kids in her grade I had never met before. Her ability to connect with children even beyond her close set of classmates.
Sometimes the acceptance took a while longer, but resistance is futile. Pudding took a shine to Cho*, a boy in her class last year, and he was pretty intimidated by the strength of her not-so-subtle affections. Over the course of the year, he went from avoiding her to becoming a good friend.
One of the bad things about international schools, is that most children who attend them do so on a temporary basis, like us. So recently we had to say goodbye to Ana and Cho. It feels no exaggeration to write that Pudding was heartbroken. Pudding worked through her feelings by sending notes.
In the meantime, Pudding’s friendship with Sofia continued. The two progressed from sending notes and pictures to small gifts and tokens. At least once a week, Pudding would come home from school with a gift bag from Sofia, and she would find or make items for Sofia in return. In time we have managed a successful play date, and both Sofia and Pudding are looking forward to the next one.
But she still misses her friends who have moved on. When I mentioned that another mother was going to visit Ana and her family her native country, Pudding knew exactly what to do- she would send gifts to go with her. She carefully selected items, wrapped them in paper she decorated herself, and sent them to Ana. I just heard today that Ana was delighted to receive her present. She was sad that her friends in Argentina had forgotten her, and Pudding’s gift was a concrete reminder that she is loved and missed.
The school has allowed her to attend Spanish lessons now, and she keeps finding other ways to connect with new friends. Her ways aren’t always conventional, but her sentiment is sincere and unmistakeable. Every effort is a gift.
*Not their real names. Neither is Pudding, in case you didn’t know!