“Cameron! Hello! Pay attention, please. I can see that your mind is wandering. I asked if you fed Lizzie. You know, our cat?”
Cameron had allowed his mind to wander, once again, and it was a pet peeve of his mother. He was struggling to recall if he had turned the water off after brushing his teeth that morning. And the light in his closet…was that off? He was pretty sure he had unplugged the toaster after making a frozen waffle, but was the freezer door tightly shut? He pinched his eyes tight, trying to see if he could see the faint glimmer of a light in the tight opening between the freezer and refrigerator in his kitchen.
|Did you enjoy this article? Leave a comment below! And check out all of the great new content from YA Magazine on young adult books, top teen novels, young adult TV shows, movie casting news, young adult literature, and more! Follow us on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.|
“Uh, yeah, I fed her. Two and a half scoops of food, exactly” he replied to his exasperated mother. Glancing down at his waffle, Cameron struggled to adhere to what Dr. Pembrose had mentioned in their last visit. Turning his head to the right, he looked up at his mother and met her eyes. He did just what he was told, which was to “engage” when he spoke to someone. It was not a natural action and, in fact, often took great effort. The small smile that developed at the corners of Diane Rutlidge’s mouth reassured Cameron that she was pleased and that she knew how hard he was trying.
“Finish up, Cam. Time to head to school soon” his mother gently reminded him. She was well aware that his morning routine was so involved and complex that even though they still had nearly an hour to get to Redwood High School, only 5 blocks from their home in Belvedere, California, that the time would evaporate quickly.
As he gobbled up the last of his waffle, Cameron mentally ran through the very long list of rituals that he must complete in order to make it out the door in time. The counting, organizing, timing, straightening and then repeating could go on for hours if his mother allowed. Instead, they all agreed with the therapist that he would keep his rituals brief so that his mother doesn’t have to explain to her boss at the insurance company that she was late again because her son had spent 25 minutes straightening his toothbrush in the porcelain holder in his bathroom.
Cameron stretched out his long legs as he pushed back from the kitchen table and saw out of the corner of his eye that Lizzie had nudged 8 morsels of food out of her bowl as she ate that morning. His eyes moved to his mother, who was digging through a drawer for an emery board, and he determined that if he could get over to the bowl without her looking, it would only take 12 seconds to tidy the area and rush to the bathroom. This did not include, of course, the five or six or seven hand-washing sessions that would then be required because of cat germs and food germs and floor germs. Moving as stealthily as Lizzie on the hunt for a phantom mouse, Cameron dashed to the bowl and tidied the area before his mother ever noticed.
Finally in the minivan on the way to school 50 minutes and 21 rituals later, Cameron’s mother tried to cheerfully engage her son in a brief chat on the way to school.
“Do you think you will talk to Nate in math class today? Maybe see if he wants to come over this weekend?”
His mother wanted so desperately for Cameron to have friends and he felt like a chronic disappointment to her because of his inability to close the deal on relationships. He wanted to please her and there were even moments when he wanted friendships himself. But he could never get past the crippling anxiety he felt in trying to socialize with other kids. He had finally gotten to the point where he could look his therapist in the eye, talk to his grandmother on the phone and even chat for a few moments with his cousin. While he could manage distant relationships with adults, trying to initiate a friendship with a peer was more than he could tolerate.
Cameron never did respond to his mother’s questions about Nate from math class. He was lost in the panic and fear and recoiling that accompanied just the thought of a passing social interaction. It wasn’t going to happen and they both knew it. He felt his anxiety turning to anger as he felt his mother was backing him into a corner. His left leg started twitching-up and down, up and down, up and down. He started counting the moments until they reached the school and he could be released from the car, which felt like it was smothering him.
Arriving at school, Cameron jumped out of the minivan and trotted into the school. He could feel the sting of his mother’s disappointment on his back as he maneuvered his way around the small groups of teenagers that crowded the entrance to Redwood High School.
It wasn’t that Cameron did not want friendships. In fact, he had the natural tendency of all human beings to make connections and enjoy the company of other people. But his Asperger’s Syndrome seemed to push down any of those feelings as his desire to not be touched, not be looked at and not be fully engaged took over his life. It was a real paradox and one that Cameron could never quite figure out.
Back in grade school his mother forced play-dates upon him in an effort to do her part to ramp up his social life. A small parade of kids came in and out of their home, as Cameron failed to connect with any of them. His overwhelming desire for order and cleanliness made these events more traumatic than anything else. Cameron also focused on one small area of interest and could not force himself to play the games that the other kids enjoyed. He went through phases of intense interest in lemurs, then the Civil War and most recently the music of an obscure band from Ireland. When something captured his interest, Cameron would focus his entire being on that one topic and exclude nearly everything else from his life. And currently, it seemed that no one in his suburban San Francisco school had any interest at all in Irish music.
Promptly at 10:15AM; Cameron made his way to the social workers office for his daily appointment. Each day he met with Mrs. Kirkwood instead of suffering through PE class. Because of profound clumsiness that bordered on endangered Cameron, he has been given a pass for PE class since 6th grade. That time is spent in the quiet social worker’s office where they discussed social integration, eye contact, managing anxiety and a host of other topics that made Cameron nervous to his core. Still, in the last year he has been able to meet his goals of making eye contact four times per day, talking to two people per day and standing near crowds of people once per day. This progress pleased his mother endlessly and so Cameron kept up his efforts, despite the accompanying anxiety.
Today, however, Mrs. Kirkwood had a new goal for him. She wanted him to start making friends on the Internet and begin his efforts on a popular social networking site. Cameron historically had little use for the social aspect of the Internet, as it seemed to be pointless. His new goal was to seek out three friends per week online and spend 15 minutes per day engaging in social behavior. No making eye contact? No standing near groups of people? No feeling the gut wrenching stab of nerves when trying to talk to someone face-to-face? Cameron immediately agreed and began imagining in his mind how easy this will be to do.
When he arrived home that afternoon, having agreed with Mrs. Kirkwood that he could dismiss his other goals for the day and just stick with this one, Cameron hurried through his obsessive rituals in order to start on his new friend project immediately. Lizzie was fed. Stray food pieces counted, retrieved and thrown in the garbage. Washed hands three times. Organized the mail alphabetically. Washed postal germs from his hands three more times.
Finally, he settled in with is laptop to start his virtual friendships. He immediately noticed that everyone on the site he was using used the word ‘friend’ very nonchalantly and without the anxiety that he usually felt for the term. People had 80 or 150 or 325 “friends”. People ‘friended’ even the most casual acquaintance and quickly acted in a very comfortable capacity with these individuals. For Cameron, it was all the benefits of friendship without the paralyzing fear and uneasiness.
Biting his lower lip with anticipation, Cameron checked the site for a fan page relating to his favorite band. Much to his delight, he found such a page and it boasted 1,248 members. All potential friends! Scrolling through the comments they were all saying just what Cameron would say about the band. All the same words, all the same feelings, all the same obsessive tones. It was as though he had come home to a place that he never even knew existed.
Hearing his mother walking down the hall, Cameron could no longer contain his excitement.
“Mom. Mom! Look, come here, look what I did. I did it. Mrs. Kirkwood said to do it and I went online and there they were and I guess you could even call them my friends. And this guy from Finland even just tried to start talking to me,” Cameron breathlessly exclaimed to his mother.
She saw in Cameron what she had not seen in more than a decade. It was excitement. It was social connection. It was a dream come true. And it was the first step towards friendships that should last her son a lifetime.