April is World Autism Awareness Month and it is heart-warming to see thousands of parents around the globe come forward to support children with autism. Even with this growing awareness about autism, everyday things can end up inducing plenty of stress when you have a child with special needs.
As a mother of an autistic child myself, I could not help but remember the day I hung up the phone and could barely breathe. My heart was still racing and my shoulders were tense.
Did I just get some bad news? No, not in the slightest! In fact, my family just got invited over to a new friend’s house for a playdate.
For most people, a play date is fun and a welcome break. Most moms look forward to some meaningful adult conversation and some cool hangout time with other moms.
Not me- at least not at the time when I got that phone call years ago. For me, playdates were stressful. I would constantly second guess myself once I committed to one. If the play date was with a new friend, I’d feel consumed with anxiety.
It has been 10 years since my son was diagnosed with autism. He was only a few months into his third year and had a baby sister when we learnt he was a child with special needs.
The playdate didn’t turn out so well- just as I feared. My daughter romped about easily with the host’s kids but my son stayed in the living room with the adults.
This was an unnatural thing for the other kids- and the kids did what they knew best. They kept pushing him to join them.
“Come with us!”
“Let’s play outside”
“What do you want to do?”
Then, they did the next natural thing. They turned to me with their questions, much to the embarrassment of their parents.
“Why doesn’t he want to play with us?”
“Why isn’t he talking?”
“Why is he doing that?”
I swayed from helplessness to embarrassment. At that time, I wanted nothing so badly as wanting my son to join them. I even feared that his behavior will sour my friendship with the other mom.
Finally, I just said, “He just wants to hang out with me for a while.”
Unlike some other kids with special needs, my son didn’t look like a child with special needs. He did not need physical assistance. He made good eye contact. The only thing that stopped things on the tracks was when someone started a conversation with him. All they would get was blank stares and smiles.
Kids with autism have behaviors that pop up unexpectedly, which can be particularly stressful around a new acquaintance.
With all this anxiety and stress surrounding playdates, why did I even bother joining them?
Because there really was no better way.
Because I feared that, without the exposure to other people and practice in a safe environment, my son would self-isolate even more.
Gradually, I woke up to the fact that it was up to me to make his playdates successful.
Over the years we’ve attended many gatherings and play dates with other families. Through these years, I developed strategies to not only reduce my own anxiety but to get my son to enjoy his play dates as well.
My daughter, three years younger than her brother was an early talker. I would watch her as a toddler, and then a preschooler, try so hard to engage her brother in an activity.
I realized that I had to find activities that they could do together. My daughter was up for anything, but finding things that interested my son was a challenge.
I knew my son loved music and soon found out that he loved dancing to different beats. We used our box of instruments to have a jam session with maracas, shakers, drums, bells, harmonicas, and recorders. Very soon, these dance parties became a standard feature of playdates we hosted.
I also found activities that were calming for him. He loved working with beads and stickers. Our art projects involved making necklaces and bracelets as much as dot art markers, construction paper, scissors and glue. They soon discovered their love for making pictures together with Lite Brite Boy.
Find solutions at home and facilitate play with a sibling if there is one. If there isn’t a sibling to play with, bring out your play skills and play with your child in a manner that another child would play.
My son did not have advanced language skills, so I had to find other opportunities to include him.
I learnt to plan for activities that didn’t require a lot of vocabulary to participate.
For example, my son loves to jump so we would have playdates at places that had large inflatables such as ‘Pump It Up’ or huge trampolines like ‘Sky High’. The inflatable is so loud that it is difficult to talk while it is running so the kids just jump, laugh and have fun together.
Any playdates involving water were great for my son as he loves playing with water.
Here are some things that have worked well for us with water.
Another fun activity that the kids enjoyed doing together was building a car or house with Straws & Connectors. This activity is great because kids love building big things and once they’re done building it, they can play inside the structure that they made. Straws & Connectors are portable so it’s easy to take them to someone else’s house.
I often had a snack ready to serve all the kids so that everyone felt included. This is a great way to bring all the kids together to do something they love – eat!
I always kept something in my bag that I could pull out for him if he needed a break from everyone. It could be a tablet, book, his favorite music with headphones or a snack. If your child is into puzzles, bringing a new puzzle is a great backup activity as the other kids may want to join in as well. My son was never into trains or cars but if your child is, this is a great thing to bring along as your backup plan.
By going to the playdate with a backup plan in mind, there was a better chance that my son would be able to do an activity with the other kids.
Kids with autism attract a lot of questions about their behavior. If there is a sibling, talk to them about what to say.
Sometimes, my younger daughter would answer for me and tell his friends, “He doesn’t talk very much, but he knows what you’re saying.”
Refrain from giving out long-drawn answers. Simple responses work best.
Something like,”He doesn’t talk very much and he likes to do his own thing sometimes,” worked well for us.
They kids found it easier to include him in something that he was ready to engage in but didn’t feel perturbed when he didn’t. They simply did their own thing.
If the child has a sibling, it is important to let them know that when you tell them it’s time to leave, they need to help gather their things and be ready to go. Our middle daughter is a social butterfly but she understands that her brother’s threshold for social situations can be unpredictable at times.
When he was first diagnosed, we avoided playdates in the hope that his language and social skills would improve and then we will eventually socialize more. Later we realized that this was a mistake and we gradually stepped outside our comfort zone and ventured into more social situations.
My husband and I went into these social settings with a plan to have a good time as a family and to support our son in ways that would help him to enjoy being in a social setting. This meant making sure that he had food that he liked to eat and that he went to the bathroom. There have been times that his behaviors escalated and we knew he was at his limit so either we all left as a family. If we were at a neighbor’s home, one of us would take my son home while the other parent stayed with our other kids.
Now that my son is older, I don’t get these questions very often because most people that we know are aware of his diagnosis.
When someone asks me a question about my son that requires an explanation, I try my best to respond in a way that is respectful of him. I don’t know how much my son comprehends, but I want him to know that I’m always looking out for his best interest. I don’t want him to feel put down for not being able to communicate like his peers.
We have done a variety of things to support our son in social situations but the key for us has been to surround ourselves with family and friends that we love and who understand our challenges.
These special people in our lives give our son the opportunity to engage with another person without judgement.
One of our friends is a dad of three boys that are older than our son. His easy-going demeanor has always been such a positive influence on our son as he isn’t ruffled by our son’s noises or behavior issues.
Whenever we have gone over to his house or he and his family come over to our house, it took the stress off of us as we didn’t have to feel so on guard with our son’s behaviors.
These special friends understand that our son may not have language skills, but he has his own way of interacting with them on his terms.
At the end of the day, isn’t this what we all want for our children?
For them to be surrounded by people that care about them and that they feel a sense of connection with?
Katherine Kanaaneh is the author of the Amazon bestseller “Autism with HEART: A Guide for Parents with Newly Diagnosed Kids”. As a former CPA, she used her organizational skills to put systems into place so that she could write a book, volunteer as an autism support group facilitator and maintain her blog. She writes about setting and striving for your goals when you have a lot on your plate, the importance of self-care especially when you’re taking care of others and how simplifying will help you live a fuller life. She lives with her three children in San Jose, CA. You can find her at www.StrivingMamas.com