My friend's daughter, "Rachel," is a year younger than Ryan, but developmentally she's like a decade ahead of him. At 8 years old she loves reading Harry Potter to herself and has already perfected her eye-roll.
We were finishing up lunch on my deck. Ryan was sitting at the table reading a graphic novel out loud to himself - loudly and enthusiastically enough that he probably didn't notice our conversation.
I launched into a version of my standard Explaining Autism to a Kid speech. We've had this conversation before; this one started very much like previous versions did.
And then, Rachel got a little too honest:
"Cuz I don't really like him. Like, I don't hate him or anything, but..."
This was the first time Rachel had expressed anything but fondness for Ryan. My friend and I make her and her sister and Ryan spend quite a bit of time together, and they have almost always appeared to enjoy playing with each other. I'm told they often ask if Ryan can come over and play, and Ryan certainly gets excited when he knows they're going to have a play date.
My friend shifted into one of those teaching-moment conversations that results in Time Out and a sulky apology. I excused myself to sob uncontrollably.
Monday morning, my heart still hurts.
Rachel said it out loud, but I can only assume lots of Ryan's peers think it to themselves: he's weird. He's hard to play with. We don't hate him or anything, but we don't really like hanging out with him.
All the therapies and in-school supports in the world aren't going to turn him into a typical kid - one that his peers can readily play with without putting in a bit of extra work; one who will reciprocate in an expected and predictable way.
And some day, someone is going to say that to his face, or in his presence when he's not wrapped up in reading. And he's going to be crushed.
And he's desperately going to want that kid to like him, but he's not going to know how.
And he's going to doubt his own self-worth and kick himself and wish he were typical and hate that he's not.
Because all he wants is to play with other kids, even though he's really bad at it.
All he wants is to find someone to play hopscotch with him in the driveway. And all he can think to do is run down the street ringing doorbells, not waiting for anyone to answer.
And someday a kid who Ryan considers his friend is going to tell him to his face that his efforts aren't good enough. That he isn't good enough.
And he's going to believe it.