I’ve been on a training course for the last year or so, learning to be an ally to Ben. I’ll come back to what ‘ally’ really means in this context, but one of the things we looked at is Circles of Friends (sometimes called Circles of Support).
My (superficial) understanding of this idea is that it is a process to intentionally help people make friends – for people who are finding it difficult to make and keep friends on their own, who are feeling isolated. The key principles are that no-one is paid to be in the Circle and it is based on asking the focus person what they want (not what other, even well-meaning, people think they want). It’s mainly used for teenagers and adults. In practice, it means a group of people who agree to meet regularly and assist someone to fulfill their dreams and ambitions.
It’s a way of concentrating attention on the ‘focus person’ and trying to look at what that person would like from their life and help make that happen within their local community – it could be ‘going to the pub’, or ‘moving house’ or anything inbetween. There’s an example in action here.
I found it fascinating but not that relevant to us right now. Ben is 4, surrounded by friendly people at school, nursery and home; we’re not at that stage yet.
Last week it was half term and Ben and I went to buy some avocados. I went in to pay, leaving Ben in his wheelchair just outside, and as I handed over the money I glanced at him and he gave me a massive grin. As I looked away, I thought I saw him smiling at a man who works in the shop who was organising the fruit. When I came out again, the man said hello to both of us, smiled at Ben and offered him a banana. We all smiled a bit more, said thank you, and off we went to return home.
We have history with Banana Man (as I’ve just decided to call him). Last month, Ben and I went to the same shop. It was after school and Ben was tired. As we arrived, I put Ben’s wheelchair near the fruit outside the shop and at that exact moment a dog, which was also being left outside while it’s companion did some shopping, started barking. Loudly and insistently. Ben has trouble managing his swallow with his breathing and if things take him by surprise he can lose control for a bit, which throws everything out of kilter. In this case, the shock of the dog barking (and barking, and barking) meant he started choking. I quickly wheeled him away from the shiny ripe fruit by which time he was vomiting. So I take him out of his wheelchair and we’re both hunched on the pavement, when soon-to-be Banana Man comes up with loads of tissues and a concerned expression, asking if he can help. Actually there’s nothing to be done – I clean up Ben with the donated tissues and we head home (without any milk). It was an unfortunate incident for both Ben and my tea addiction.
We have a 2 year old, Max, who is a bold, bolshy boy. He’s loud and cute and we rarely take him anywhere without someone commenting (in a nice way) on him, what he’s doing, what he’s good at, how funny he is. Small children are fantastic social conduits and people who normally wouldn’t interact become chatty with Max around. You can bet your house that if you walk to the shop with Max, someone will acknowledge him at some point. That happens a lot less with Ben – he’s physically passive, he doesn’t talk and interrupts people less. Maybe people notice his wheelchair more than him, or they’re too busy thinking about bananas to notice how beautiful he is.
The banana thing made me think that tiny incidents like this are our small, less formalised version of a Circle of Friends for Ben. He can’t currently make friendships easily so these small connections are important to us – Banana Man knows who Ben is, smiles and interacts with him, and makes us feel like we belong in our little community. He smiled, and Ben smiled back, and that’s where a sense of connection begins. Mr Banana might not realise it yet, but I’m now rather fond of him.
Ben held the banana all the way home (no mean feat for a boy with a tricky relationship with his hands) and was very pleased with the whole trip. I am thrilled that the cheapest shop in our local parade is the one Ben is forging links with – if he’d picked the shop next door we’d be bankrupted buying £5 loaves of sourdough in an effort to encourage friendship.