Mrs Wilson next door was very ill and had to go to hospital. Mr Wilson was not very mobile and couldn't take their dog Bruce for walks. So my mother offered to look after Mr Wilson and I looked after the dog. It was a bitsa they had got from some animal rescue place. It had to be taken out twice a day. I quite enjoyed it, especially as it had a thing about squirrels and there are lots of them in our local park. I used one of those reel-out/reel-in leads so that he could run around a lot but not go too far. Sometimes the lead got tangled up with bushes and benches.
I don't know where the name Bruce came from. My other says it was from a sketch in a sitcom when she was young, Anyway it sort of seemed to fit.
Towards the end of term I took Bruce out before going to school, and then again when I got home. Then when term ended for the summer holiday I just kept on with the same arrangement. Since it was the end of primary school for me there was also a bit of a feeling of growing up. Sometimes I took Bruce on expeditions but I always kept him on the lead. I had no idea if he would run away if I let him off, or if he would come back to me if I called. Going to the park at the same time every day meant that pretty soon I recognised lots of regulars and we'd nod or say 'Hallo.' You got to know which dogs liked each other and which ones to avoid. You got to know who cleaned up after their dog and where the bins were.
One afternoon I was with Bruce in the park. He saw a squirrel and went berserk, charging off and running in circles yapping loudly. He was on quite a long lead and as I tried to reel him in another boy came along with a dog on a fixed lead. This one got all excited by Bruce and also started charging around and there was a tangle of dogs and leads.
The other boy and I eventually got the two mutts separated. I sat at one end of a nearby bench to let Bruce calm down. "Sorry about that" I said to him, "He hasn't done that before." He sat at the other end of the bench. "My dog's called Bruce. Can I let him get near yours? I'm Chris." Still no reply but he didn't seem to object so I slowly let out some of Bruce's lead. The two dogs seemed quite all right with each other. My mysterious companion spoke softly "She's Dot. I'm Owen."
Talking to Owen was hard work. He answered questions but did not seem to want to ask any himself. We got a sort of conversation going. I found out that he lived in a road just off the park boundary road, which was about half a mile from ours. I told him what school I went to, or rather used to go to. He did not reply so I asked him what school he was at and he told me a name that I didn't recognise. I told him I was going up to Milward Academy in September. All the time he never looked directly at me
Eventually I thought I ought to be going so I said "I'll be here tomorrow I'll come at the same time."
"What time is that?" he asked
"Half three" I said. I don't know why but I sort of wanted to meet him again. I was intrigued by Owen. It is hard to say why, and I wanted to learn more about him.
The next day I collected Bruce and we walked over to the park. Owen was already there. "You're late" was his answer to my "Hallo". I was a bit surprised and said sorry. "You said you would be here at half three and it's twenty-five to four." He didn't sound angry or upset, but just stated it as a fact. We talked some more. The dogs seemed to get on well. Once again Owen and I sat at opposite ends of the bench. He didn't look directly at me. We talked, or rather I did and he answered.
I told my Mum about Owen and how he was a bit of a mystery and him answering but not asking questions. She said she had an idea about him and asked me if I wanted to go on seeing him. I said 'yes'. She said she would look up her idea but that if she was right then getting to know him might be quite hard work.
The next day she suggested that I take something with me like one of my Lego constructions or some of the origami designs I was learning. Then we could sit together and talk about it.
We kept up our meetings for a week or more, always at 3:30. I made sure never to be late. One day like Mum suggested I took along some part of a Lego project that I was working on. I showed it to him. He took it from me and examined it. "It'll work better if that bit is changed for one of those hinged ones". This was in the same flat matter-of-fact tone he had used before. Not criticising, but just stating the obvious. I asked whether he liked Lego and he told me he had some but now preferred working with some construction software on his computer. I imagined something like Minecraft. He told me the name but I had not heard of it.
Owen seemed to be working up to something, as if he was practising what to say. At last he said "My Mum says would you like to come over to our house tomorrow for tea." It was the first time he had asked me a question. It sounded as though he was repeating something he had been taught, almost as if he did not actually understand what he was saying. I said I would ask my Mother that night. He pulled a piece of paper from his pocket and passed it to me. "That's our number. You can call her with an answer." Wow. We'd almost held a conversation.
My Mum was very happy for me to go but she did the parent thing of calling Owen's mother to make arrangements and get the address. Then she told me that she had quite a good idea of what she called his 'condition', and she would talk to me about it afterwards.
We met up as usual and after giving the pooches some exercise we walked across the park to his place. We had the usual question/answer talk and got to his house. It was a nice looking place, just like ours really. His Mum was nice, too, and made me feel at home. She suggested that the two of us should go to his room while she got the tea ready and she would call us down. We put the dogs in the back garden which had a fence so they could not get out. Bruce explored the new space.
"Do you think Dot will mind Bruce being in her space?" I asked.
"Don't know. Why not?" Owen asked.
"Well, it's Dot's garden and she might not like him being there" I answered.
Owen thought for a moment and then just said "Oh". I decided not to go on.
Owen showed me his room and some of his things. There were lots of books, but all about science and things like that. There were no stories. The posters on the walls seemed to be pictures of stars and galaxies. He had his own computer. There was something odd about it all. It was so tidy. Not tidy like when my Mum tells me to clean my room and everything just gets pushed out of sight. This was really tidy like everything had just one place and that's where it was. The books were arranged by height and I was sure that if I looked I'd find that books on the same subject were together, probably in some special order. The posters were not just bunged up but lined up as with a ruler. It was like being in workshop or some sort of lab. It didn't feel like a bedroom. I thought of my own place with stuff all around. I still had my teddy (though no visitors saw him) and my desk was covered in projects.
Probably if I was not there he would be getting on with something. But it was as though having let me in to his space he did not know what to do next. I asked him awkwardly about some of the posters and his computer, then his Mother called us down.
Tea was pasta and a nice sauce with a pastry and fruit for afters, which is pretty much what I would have had at home. Mrs Hughes talked to me about what I did, and about the dogs, and other things. Owen as usual spoke only when we asked him a question. I was beginning to get the hang of this, especially as his Mother did the same thing.
After tea Owen showed me the construction software on his computer. It wasn't a game but an actual proper program for designing stuff. He started to tell me what it did and how to use it, but pretty soon I realised that he was talking to himself and had sort of forgotten I was there. After a while I got bored so I wandered back down stairs to talk to his Mum. She sat me at the kitchen table and gave me a biscuit and a drink.
"I'm glad to meet you Chris" she said. "Owen's told me quite a bit about you. He often tells me about what you get up to in the park."
This was news to me as I thought he barely noticed my existence. "I like him but he can be a bit hard to talk to sometimes" I said. I wasn't sure of my ground and I hoped I was not being rude.
"Owen doesn't have many friends. He has some at school but most of them don't live near here."
"What school does he go to?" I asked, although I sort-of knew the answer.
"It's a school for children who don't fit in to ordinary schools. Owen is special and ordinary schools aren't good for him." This was beginning to sound like some sort of place where excluded children were sent. A boy from my school had been sent away after he started a massive fight and did a lot of damage. We were told he had been excluded and Mum said he went to some sort of special institution. Was that what happened to Owen?
"Owen has a condition called ASD. It's not a disease or anything. It means that he understands things differently to others. He learns in a different way. The special school lets him learn what he wants to in his own way. Most of the children there are special in some way. The staff make sure that no-one gets treated badly for being different."
There was quite a long pause. So in the end I said "What's this ASD then?"
"It means Autism Spectrum Disorder. It's something you're born with. Some people with ASD are very difficult to know. They're at one extreme end. They can't make eye contact. They hardly communicate at all. They don't like being touched, and are very sensitive to noise. Others are like Owen and they are just a bit different from the rest of us. Owen likes being touched but he is very suspicious if it is by someone he doesn't know. A lot of the bullying he had was physical, being pushed around. A lot was teasing because he is easy to wind up. He's very gullible. Do you know what I mean if I say that he is very literal?"
I said "One of the girls in our class is always saying things like 'I literally died.' Is that it?"
"No," she said. "literal means that something is actually true. So if you say something to Owen he understands it exactly how you have said it. So it also means if he asks you a question he means exactly what he is asking. If he asks you what the time is he means just that. If you think he means that it is time to do something else he will get quite upset if you don't tell him what the time is, because that is what he is asking." I remembered the 3:30 meeting thing and told Mrs Hughes about it. She explained how Owen would feel that we had made a definite arrangement and I had not kept to it. I understood for once why Owen said I was late. I thought he was being rude, but he was just saying that I made a promise and I did not keep it.
Then she said "There's another thing to think about. When Owen wants to say something he puts it all together in his head in a proper sentence and then says it. He hates to be interrupted when he is talking because he has not finished saying what he wants. So listen to how he talks and you'll find out how to get him to talk. Just don't expect any chat because he doesn't do that".
It felt like we were having a really grown-up conversation so perhaps I could ask some important questions.
"Did Owen go to an ordinary school like I do?"
"Yes, but it was very bad for him. He was … bullied, very badly." There was a long pause and I waited. It seemed like there was more to come. "ASD means you are very literal, like I said. It also means that it's difficult for you to understand how other people think. You assume that other people think like you do. That can mean that you trust people who are really trying to hurt you. Owen was always being teased but he didn't understand it. The bullies would lead him on in to doing stupid things, just to make him do wrong things. They got him in to trouble all the time. He got called a retard and a thicko. And he isn't. He's very clever, cleverer than the bullies!" She sounded defiant and I had the feeling that I was not the first person to hear this story.
There was another long pause. I kept quiet. I'm sure I'd used those words to someone. I'd really never thought what it was like to have them said to you.
"I thought Owen and I were going to do something together on his computer, but he just seems to want to be on his own. Do you think I've upset him?"
"No dear, but another thing you need to understand is that people with ASD have got an incredible ability to concentrate on one thing for hours. I don't really understand how he can do it. I can't." There was a pause. "Sometimes I find he has been working on the same thing for two or three hours and I have to tell him to get a drink and go to the loo. He's probably forgotten that you're here. If you were not involved in his project he would do that."
I asked her if Owen would like to come around to my place so that I can show him my things. She was standing by the kitchens sink looking out of the window. Dot and Bruce were having a bit of a stand-off over some toy that was probably Dot's favourite. "See those two? Your dog is in a new place and it is all unfamiliar and he finds it a bit confusing. If that were Owen he would be really confused and upset because he would not know where he was, or what he could do, or how things worked. He would be really unhappy. That's what happens when he gets taken to somewhere new without any warning. I'm sure he'll love it at your house, and your Mother will make him very welcome, but he would need to be prepared for the visit".
It dawned on me that the Mothers had been talking about us and how Owen could come around to ours. What else had they been talking about? Best not to ask. I said "How do I make it easy for him to come round?"
She thought for a moment. "I think if we talked to Owen about it, it will work all right. We will fix a day. Then you and Owen and the dogs meet as usual at that bench. Then you walk here and we would start for your place. We walk together to your house and I will stay there. We'll make a fixed time to leave and Owen will know what that is. Perhaps if we have the dogs with us it will help. He'll know I am there if he feels confused or unhappy. Don't try and show him lots of things because he'll get confused and upset. Don't show him anything on a computer or a phone because he'll get stuck on that. He'll kind of hide with a screen. I'd really like him to go to your house but you have to understand that he likes routine. Surprises are a problem".
I honestly never thought that being friends could be so complicated. To me going around to a friend's house wasn't a big issue, not that I had many friends. It definitely wasn't something you had to arrange like a military operation.
"Tell you what" said Mrs Hughes, "Let's call Owen down and you can both have a drink and a biscuit. Don't be surprised if he has forgotten you are here.
Owen had actually forgotten about me and was quite surprised when he walked in to the kitchen. He took a drink and a biscuit and I asked him to tell me what he had been doing on the computer. Rapidly he lost me in a technical description of the software he was using. His Mother quietly broke in to the description and said that I had to go home as it was getting late. She got Owen to see me to the door. As I left I said "see you tomorrow at the bench". He said "yes" and actually sounded as though he meant it.
The walk back home gave me some time to think. Mrs Hughes had dumped a lot on me. It felt more like hard work than just being a friend. But there was something about Owen that got under my skin. I wanted to know more about him, and know him better. My Mother naturally wanted to know everything about how it went. I told her as much as I could remember, especially what Mrs Hughes had said about being literal. She nodded and said "I thought so".
"I think it is called High Functioning ASD. I think that Mrs Hughes told you about Autism Spectrum Disorder? The High Functioning bit means that in most respects he's like the rest of us, just a bit different. It means that Owen has this special way of looking at the world." Weirdly I got the feeling that I was listening to Mrs Hughes speaking. I realised that she and my Mother had done a lot of talking together.
I said about inviting Owen over to our place and how his Mother said we would have to do it bit by bit and that she would have to come with him and they would have to arrange a particular time when they would leave and then at that time they would go and Owen would feel comfortable about it. Whew. I was right, it was hard work.
Mum was quite happy with what I suggested. She reminded me that Mrs Hughes knew Owen best and we must ask her before doing anything that would change Owen's routine.
Back in my own room I Googled ASD and started to read. There was quite a lot of it and some was too complicated for me to take in. But I learned enough to answer quite a few questions that were in my mind.
Next day I was bang on time at the bench. Owen was already there. No eye contact, as usual, but he actually started a conversation by asking about my computer. Obviously I didn't tell him what I had just used it for, but I told him about the games I played and how some of them involved other people. I was pretty sure that he had never done anything like that.
Then he really surprised me. Out of the blue he said "Mum says we're going around to your place next Wednesday." Complete news to me but I pretended to know about it, just to keep him talking. He asked me a few questions about how he would get there and how long it would take and stuff like that. I answered as simply as I could, just replying to his questions and nothing more.
Back home I told Mum about this conversation and how it felt like a sort of breakthrough.
Wednesday came. I dressed as I usually do, and went with Bruce to the park. Owen was at the bench. We exchanged "hallo's" and set off for his house. It felt like some operation from a James Bond film. Mrs Hughes was waiting for us. We all set of, the dogs charging on ahead and enjoying smelling everything.
Mum was waiting for us. She had some juice, and some nice biscuits that she'd made specially. The four of us went together around the house and the garden, looking in everywhere, even the leaky old garden shed. Owen seemed interested, but it was as though he was committing it all to memory. He liked the pond that Dad and I made the year before and we spent a long time watching for newts. There were still some tadpoles hiding under the water-lily leaves. Mum and Mrs Hughes gradually made their way over to our garden bench and sat down. They were there, but not in the way. I told Owen that sometimes I came down here with my camera and took pictures of the dragonflies and damsel flies. Mum obviously overheard us. "Would you like me to get your camera?" I said yes and she went off to get it. I had been going to do the same thing, but I didn't want to go away from Owen. For some reason it felt important that I stay with him.
Mum came back with my camera, an Olympus compact. Not a very technical device, but it produced very good results. Some of my recent pictures were still on it because I had not downloaded them. He seemed very interested in some of the close-ups that I'd got, including one of a dragonfly coming out of its skin.
I noticed a newt swimming under one of the leaves. Without thinking I put the camera in the water and pressed the shutter. Owen gave a sort of yelp and grabbed for the arm that held he camera, which was secured to my wrist by a strap. Owen early tipped me into the pond as he lunged for the camera. "It's all right" I said, trying not to fall in, "its waterproof. It's OK to put it underwater. It's designed for it". I brought the camera out of the pond and turned on the screen. There was a beautiful profile shot of he newt, just turning its head to the lens.
Owen visibly relaxed. I realised what had happened. "I'm sorry, I should have told you about that first. I just saw that animal and forgot you didn't know what I was going to do." I saw at that point that our Mothers were still sitting on the bench. Mrs Hughes had moved to the edge of the seat but was prepared to just see what happened without interfering.
Owen and I drew back from the edge of the pond and he relaxed. I showed him how he camera worked and the water-tight hatches that protected it. Soon he asked if he could use it and started taking underwater pictures.
When the Hughes' had left Mum gave me a big and embarrassing hug. "What was that for?"
"That was for he way you handled the situation with the camera."
"But I got it all wrong. I forgot to tell him it was waterproof I should have shown it to him first."
"Well, it was a little mistake, and you learned an important lesson from it. You didn't try to snatch it away or get angry with him. I was proud of you. Mrs Hughes was very impressed."
I spent the rest of the afternoon feeling really good, although I had no clear idea of what I'd done right.
Owen and his mother came to our place several times like that. He got easier with being at our house. I kept him off screens as I'd been advised. One Wednesday his mother stayed at their house and he came back only with me. After the visit I accompanied him back to his house. I had a big idea and I wanted to try it out on Mrs Hughes. When Owen was out of he room I asked her whether she thought Owen might like to go to he cinema. She was quite surprised and said she'd have to think about it. She said that she'd taken Owen to a cinema once but the noise and the flickering light and sudden action on the screen confused and upset him and they had to leave. She would let me know.
She did. She thought it might be a bad idea, too noisy, an unpredictable place, as she put it. I was about to dump the idea when she said "Here's a thought. Have you got a DVD player." I told her that, yes, being a bit old-fashioned we had one. She said "Why not make a cinema at your house. Get a nice film – I'll help you choose something. Set chairs up like a cinema. Get some drinks and popcorn. Then you can shut the curtains and pretend."
I discussed it with Mum who thought it was a great idea. We called Mrs Hughes and talked it over with her so that she could start working on Owen.
So the next Wednesday I met Owen as usual and this time we walked back to my house. We chucked the dogs in the back garden where they could do whatever it is they like to do when their humans are not around. Then Owen helped me move the small settee so that the two of us could sit together. We drew the curtains. Mum in the meantime had been getting the popcorn ready. She had a heavy saucepan out, and some oil. We had fun popping the kernels. I'm not sure whether Owen had ever done anything like this before.
The film we had chosen was Chicken Run , the Ardman animation. We set the DVD up, turned off the lights, and sat down. Mum kept the door cracked open so that she could hear if anything went wrong. What she heard was us laughing. I couldn't believe it- Owen was actually showing some emotion. At some point during the film my arm was on the cushion next to me and he laid his arm on top of mine. I didn't move, even though after about fifteen minutes I could feel I was getting pins and needles. It was worth it. A couple of times I heard him giggle.
At the end of the film I got up to turn on the lights. Owen stood up and as I walked back to the settee he suddenly looked straight at me. Looked me in the eyes. For the first time I saw his face full-on. A friendly face with nice eyes. And then he smiled. At me. Not a 1000-watt full-on ray of sunshine, not a grin. Just a smile. At me.
I did not want to miss the moment so I held out my hand to him, I suppose expecting something like a handshake. Instead he took it and held. Without breaking eye contact I said "Perhaps we'd better take Dot home. Let's go and tell my Mum". We walked together in to the kitchen. My Mum had her back to us. "Mum, we're going back to Owen's place." She turned around and her jaw visibly dropped. In a slightly odd voice she managed to say "Oh, yes". Her face was asking me a thousand questions. I had only one answer: we are together in this.
Mum collected Dot while we got our jackets and we set off. I reached out and took Owen's hand. He did not resist and seemed happy to be led, like a child. Quite a lot of people saw us but no-one said anything, even if it isn't every day that you see two twelve-year olds holding hands like little kids. If we'd met someone we knew I don't know what would have done, but it didn't happen.
His Mother seemed to have the same voice problem that mine did when she saw us. She was looking out of their sitting-room window and seemed to be watching out for us. I suppose my Mum had called her and told her what had happened. She came out and was obviously having great difficulty in appearing casual while obviously being quite excited.
As I left to go home she ruffled my hair and kissed the top of my head. Then realising that that was being babyish, she shook my hand. On my way home I knew what the expression 'walking on air' meant.
When I got in our door I apologised to Mum for not tidying up our mess. She had that funny look in her eyes. She sat me down at the kitchen table. "Don't worry about the mess. I've already cleared up". She took my hand. This was becoming a habit. Then she told me what an achievement it was. I don't think it really sank in until that moment.
Everyone was happy, I'd got a friend, and so had Bruce.
Authors deserve your feedback. It's the only payment they get. If you go to the top of the page you will find the author's name. Click that and you can email the author easily.* Please take a few moments, if you liked the story, to say so.
[For those who use webmail, or whose regular email client opens when they want to use webmail instead: Please right click the author's name. A menu will open in which you can copy the email address (it goes directly to your clipboard without having the courtesy of mentioning that to you) to paste into your webmail system (Hotmail, Gmail, Yahoo etc). Each browser is subtly different, each Webmail system is different, or we'd give fuller instructions here. We trust you to know how to use your own system. Note: If the email address pastes or arrives with %40 in the middle, replace that weird set of characters with an @ sign.]
* Some browsers may require a right click instead