My 17-year-old son T.J. met his best friend, Colby, in sixth grade when Colby came into class and saw T.J. sitting there, drawing a picture.

“That’s a cool drawing! Can I see it?” Colby said.

“Sure!” T.J. replied.

And that was it. They have been buddies ever since.

Every year on his birthday, T.J. wants Colby and his parents there at his birthday dinner. When Colby got his driver’s license, he and a friend drove to our house to take T.J. out for ice cream. No parents allowed. Typical for teenagers, but not so typical for T.J., who has autism. And T.J. loved every second of it. An outing — without Mom and with ice cream? SCORE! He felt grown up and independent, participating in this teenage rite of passage with his buddies. His dad and I do a lot for him every day, but this is something we could never give him, and it was a dream come true for us that he was able to experience it.

Last year, T.J. was bullied for the first time. I’m thrilled he made it to 11th grade without getting bullied, and hate that it had to happen at all, but I’m grateful he was surrounded by so many people who love him, and who could help him through it. That included Colby, who stood by T.J. during the aftermath. Colby treats T.J. like he’s one of the guys, and that is truly a gift. He doesn’t do it out of mercy, or for kudos. He simply likes T.J. and cares about him and their friendship.

Colby talked to the boys who bullied T.J., and told them, “Before you did this to T.J., he didn’t feel any different than the rest of us. And you took that away from him.” That is such an important thing for typical kids to remember about their peers with autism. Colby’s words had a strong impact on those boys, and I know that they will not soon forget the experience. I also know that T.J.’s confidence has grown since it happened, because he was so supported and loved throughout. He reminds me all the time, saying “Mom, I am beloved at school.”

That came in handy when, in the spring, the school was locked down because of a threat of harm to the students. Classrooms were locked down for hours, during which time the only communication between students and their families was through the kids’ cellphones. T.J. doesn’t have a cellphone (“I don’t want to be distracted or cyberbullied, Mom!” he always says when I ask if he thinks he should have a phone), so I couldn’t reach him directly.

As soon as the school was locked down, I got in touch with Colby’s mother, who, through our boys, has become one of my dearest friends. I wanted to make sure Colby was accounted for and okay, and see if she knew anything. She told me that Colby was at home because he didn’t have class, but invited me to come over and sit it out with them, instead of waiting (and panicking) at  home alone. As soon as I got there Colby asked if I had heard from T.J. I told him no, and that I didn’t know how to get in touch with him. Colby texted everyone he knew, asking where T.J. was, and if he was scared. The concern for T.J. flooded in. No one was with him, but everyone was concerned, knowing how easily he gets upset.

Finally, I received an email from T.J.’s teacher, reporting that he was safely tucked away in the computer lab with his computer animation class. When T.J. finally emailed me, his message was simply, “I’m scared.” But after he knew that he was safe and would be coming home soon, and that his friend Colby and Colby’s parents and Colby’s friends were all asking about him, he felt better. When I finally was able collect T.J. and his brother from the school, T.J. immediately asked how Colby was doing.

Toward the end of the school year, T.J. wanted to play the card game “Cards Against Humanity,” which is dirty and funny and something any typical 17-year-old kid would want to play. The only difference is that your typical 17-year-old would go ahead and play it with his friends, probably without his parents’ knowledge. But T.J. asked if he could play it with us.

I said no immediately. There are just some games a mom shouldn’t play with her kid.

“Okay then, I’ll ask Colby.”

The protective part of me wanted to shelter my precious baby from the dirty content of this game, but the “Let’s push T.J. out of his comfort zone to help him grow” part of me knew that this was a great opportunity for another typical 17-year-old experience that we couldn’t give him. So Colby organized a game with a few other buddies who also love T.J., while I watched TV upstairs. And as much as I wanted to spy on them, I resisted. I heard a ton of laughter, and when it was time for them to go, T.J. was smiling from ear to ear. He had a great time.

My role as T.J.’s mother is limited. Yes, I can push for him to have as many growth experiences as possible, and yes, I can fight for him to have access to a solid education, and for him to be the best T.J. he can be. But there are some things I can’t provide for him. Experiences that only a friend can share.

We are so lucky, and so grateful, that Colby is that friend for T.J.

I know that life takes everyone in different directions. But I also know that life will never take these friends too far from each other.

Lauren Swick Jordan is a frequent On Parenting writer and blogs at Laughing … like it’s my job.

Follow On Parenting on Facebook for more essays, news and updates. You can sign up here for our weekly newsletter.

You may also be interested in: