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SOMETIMES FRIENDS NEED NOT SAY A WORD

One summer morning my son, Matthew, noticed his sister Emily leave once again for a play date. "Mom, why does Emily have so many friends?" he asked.

"Well," I thought as I filled his cereal bowl, and threw a quick prayer up to God to send Matthew a friend, "she enjoys the same games as the other children, she listens to what they say and she's usually happy to try something new."

Matthew just stared off at the dining room wall. He let the idea of having a friend slide away as he focused on licking the dry Cheerios off of his spoon. Matthew has autism, and has trouble understanding the social nuances of friendship.

He knew he enjoyed spending time with Emily, but he was not aware that she would always play his games by his rules. Matthew enjoys talking with other children, but at 11, he still does not understand the concept of a two-way conversation. He talks at kids while monopolizing the subject matter. Kids do not play with Matthew -- they play around him.

He is currently focused on his stereo system. I often overhear him talking, even if no one is in the room: "My stereo has a five-CD changer, three-way speakers and an auto-reverse tape player."

Maybe, if someone is in the room, he will listen for a moment, but eventually he will lose interest and find an excuse to wander away. Matthew wants people to come into his world. However, he does not understand that people also want to share their own thoughts and ideas with him. He does not have play dates or phone calls from friends. He spends most of his time alone. So naturally, I was surprised to see Matthew swimming with a friend at the Southtowns YMCA one evening while I sat on the bench nearby. I caught his attention and Matthew splashed over, his skinny arms making little progress. He grasped on to the side of the pool, regaining his breath. I walked over to the edge so he would be able to hear when I asked him his friend's name.

Matthew, anxiously wanting to get back to playing, yelled out, "Stephen!" He pulled himself out of the pool with the help of the ladder and walked to the other end of the pool where Stephen was waiting. I watched Matthew and Stephen set up a synchronized dive for rings on the bottom of the pool.

Matthew kept talking to Stephen as they floated in the water. The noise in the pool kept me from overhearing Matthew's words, although I could see he was doing all of the talking. I expected that Stephen would get bored with Matthew's repetitive conversation and swim away.

Stephen did start to swim away, but he raised his arm and motioned for Matthew to follow him. They developed their own buddy system, which lasted for the rest of the evening. I looked up to heaven and whispered, "thank you!"

As I gathered the pile of goggles and nose plugs at the end of the swimming session, Stephen's aunt came over to me and we introduced ourselves. Her name was Angela, and she inquired if Matthew would be able to meet Stephen at the YMCA again the next Friday.

With hope in my heart I agreed, and I explained to her that this was the first time Matthew was able to make a friend.

She nodded her head knowingly and said, "My nephew also has problems making friends -- he only speaks Chinese."

ANTOINETTE SHRIVER lives in Alden.