When my older son was Cheeks’ age, we had plenty of opportunities for him to socialize. That doesn’t happen for kids who have autism. A few months ago I came across a story titled, “The First Time My Son With Autism Got a Birthday Invite I Didn’t Have to Decline“, and I only got as far as the title without feeling that familiar kick in the gut over the ways my son doesn’t get included. By the end of it I was a puddle. Cheeks turns 10 in a few weeks, in those years he has only ever been invited to one birthday party. He’s never had one of his own. There are many heartbreaking stories that I have seen about other families having painful experiences when they have tried, so we’ve just had to take a nontraditional approach to throwing parties.
Until a few days ago, Cheeks had also only ever had one play date. That was with a neighbor’s son, who was asked to come to the house under the supervision of Cheeks’ behavioral therapist, to assist him in learning how to play with new friends. Since it was technically a therapy session for Cheeks, I’m not even sure it counts as a play date.
A few days ago, we tried the play date thing again. This time, with a boy—whom I will call Music Man—from Cheeks’ classroom. Cheeks was so excited, it’s all he talked about from the moment he got off the school bus until we were ringing the doorbell at Music Man’s house. That’s a Very Big Deal, because talking can be such a chore for him. Music Man’s mother and I were hopeful about it going well, but I think we were both a little anxious as well. On the one hand, I was afraid Cheeks would be triggered in this unfamiliar environment and have one of his epic tantrums, complete with the usual self-injury. On the other hand, if there were any safe place for that to happen, it would be at the home of another special needs family.
The play date was kept short, and both boys seemed contented enough. They tried to do a few things together, but they were struggling with the new experience and not knowing what the expectations were. These humble results were deemed a success by both myself and Music Man’s mom.
If they could tell us, I believe that both Cheeks and Music Man would explain that they want to connect, but they don’t know how to do that. They want to be welcomed by other kids, but they don’t know how to behave when it’s offered. They want to play with their new friends, but they get easily confused by social rules and manners. They want to enjoy the time they spend with others, but anxiety is a part of everything they do. Most of all, they are constantly looking for people and places where these challenges don’t stop them from finding friendship.
If you are lucky enough to have a child with a social life, be grateful. Having friends is one of the great joys of life. And maybe ask your child to invite someone over who sits alone, acts funny, or doesn’t always seem like he or she is listening. That small act might just be the first time another child gets included.