This guest post is by Jane Kim, an immigration attorney, writer and mom of a six-year-old with autism. She lives in the Philadelphia suburbs.
As moms, there are many milestones we look forward to when it comes to our kids: first steps, first words, first birthday, first day of preschool and kindergarten. Before I became a mom, I naively assumed these milestones were guaranteed within a certain period of time. But after having a son who is on the autism spectrum, I soon realized that wasn’t always the case. While we are fortunate he has met these milestones, they didn’t come without a fair amount of coaxing and therapist consultation, not to mention a heavy dose of behind-the-scenes anxiety.
As my son approached his sixth birthday (and the daily grind of sleepless nights and the likelihood of falling down the stairs seemed to be in the rearview mirror), I noticed there was something absent from our daily lives: play dates. Friends and colleagues often lamented all the time they spent bringing their children to friends’ homes. “Being my kids’ chauffeur is exhausting!” they’d gripe.
I’d nod along, empathizing with the exhaustion albeit for very different reasons: I’d spent a good part of my son’s early years taking him to therapist and doctor’s appointments while managing a team of therapists. Otherwise, though, I couldn’t relate; my son didn’t have friends. Me, his dad, his two cousins who are close in age to him were his best and only playmates. My own friendships had gotten me through the tough times and made the good times that much sweeter. If my son got a later start than most, would it matter in the end?
So I added “play dates” to my mental list of things to worry about. Some days it never crossed my mind, and others it was front and center. Like when I’d overhear parents referencing past play dates at birthday parties or school events. Or when I’d see a group of neighborhood kids playing outside. Then one day, as I was in my son’s class to attend an Easter Party, I saw a little girl run up to him with her arms outstretched. I was startled; my son was not. They hugged and laughed and the girl’s mother approached me and introduced herself. She said her daughter talked about him a lot, and she wanted to arrange a play date now that the weather was getting nicer. I felt a lump in my throat. We exchanged numbers.
While I was happy and relieved my son would have his first play date, my anxiety actually increased—I worried he’d be aloof or awkward. My son is a kid that doesn’t necessarily enjoy what most kids enjoy. When he’s hanging with his cousin, who is less than a year older, he sometimes fixates on certain things and has difficulty sitting still. Most of their play dates involve wrestling, swimming and riding things with wheels. But family is different. They accept and embrace your differences and quirks, if you get on each other’s nerves, there’s still love.
To me, the most challenging part of parenting a child on the autism spectrum is that it robs you of some of your intuition, especially in the early years. My gut was telling me the play date would be fine, but I didn’t trust it; it had been weighed down by years of worry and uncertainty.
So I spoke with my son’s behavior analyst, Susan, who is the person in charge of ensuring specific goals and skills are met and acquired based on his individual needs. She comes to our home about once a week, to develop new goals and monitor my son’s progress. She also supervises and works closely with his behavior technician, who sees him much more frequently.
Susan suggested his behavior technician could join the play date and facilitate some of the play. She also offered to facilitate it herself, so the technician could observe and get ideas for future play dates. I did the math: 4 adults, 2 kids. It was starting to feel like less of a play date and more of a therapy session. She told me to think it over and would support whatever decision I made.
I called my older sister, who is blessed with the gift of quick decisions. “Give him a chance to do it alone,” she said. “You’ll be fine.” I thought of the irony of that statement: This wasn’t about me, it was about him. I couldn’t let my fears get in the way. I decided to do a traditional play date, just two parents and two kids.
We decided to meet at a local park on a Wednesday. The day before, the forecast called for rain. I texted the mom and told her we could reschedule to another day if the weather didn’t cooperate. I was starting to get cold feet. To my surprise, she suggested meeting at an indoor play area if it rained. I couldn’t turn back now.
As we got out of the car the next day, I saw them walking towards us. I held my breath. My son greeted his friend with a cheerful hello and a hug. And then, they did what kids do. They played together and they played apart. They laughed a lot and got on each other’s nerves. They had f-u-n.
The afternoon went by in a blur, and soon it was time to leave. Both kids were sweaty and begged for more time to play. We agreed to meet again, soon.
And just like that, his first play date was over. Yet another milestone to be celebrated, with one notable difference: he did it on his own.
Jane can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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