Tuesday, February 22, 2011

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The Politics of Play Dates

My Life as an Ungraceful, Unhinged, and Unwilling Draftee into the Autism Army

Beside the fact that her title is so long it takes up an entire line of text, I love her blog and follow her on twitter ( @autismarmymom) as well. I consider it quite a feat to have begged, cried, and threatened have had her consent to being here today. Show her some love, in the Monster House tradition.

Certain words and phrases automatically strike fear in the hearts of parents of autistic children.  Summer vacation.  Low battery.  Playhouse Disney is now Disney Jr.  Seriously, was that last one necessary?

For me, another one is “play date”.  Since social and play skills are a pretty standard deficits amongst children with autism, we are often encouraged to organize play dates with typically developing peers so that our kids can model their play schemes and behaviors.  Because everything that typical children do is so much awesomer than what our kids do.  Uh huh.
Organizing play dates with other children on the spectrum can be just as dicey.  On one hand, it’s nice to have a fellow special needs mom to commiserate with.  On the other hand, quite frankly I can barely stand my own ASD child half the time, let alone someone else’s.  Because my kid isn’t unpredictable enough, let’s add another one into the mix and see how much more combustible we can make a situation.

Last month, Audrey was invited to a birthday party for one of her classmates.  She’s in a private autism school, so all of her classmates are on the spectrum.  After the party, the birthday boy’s mother emailed me to feel me out about organizing a play date.  She proceeded to lay out for me all of Connor’s issues and deficits, telling me that he generally prefers to play alone and “can get aggressive if another child gets in his ‘space’.”   She probably felt the need for full disclosure, which on one hand is sort of nice, but on the other…is it wrong for me not to be too anxious to schedule a play date?

Shortly afterwards, the mother of Audrey’s BFF and classmate Grace Anne received virtually the same overture from this mother.  But she had an extra paragraph in hers:

“I'm not sure how they get along, actually.  This past week there has been something going on between them at school where Connor says one of his favorite things like Alphablocks and Grace Anne changes it to something cuter like Alphablock Cupcakes.  I told Connor it is because she is trying to be his friend, but he doesn't get it and says that he wants to nail her mouth shut with boards.”  (Emphasis added)

Whoa!  Sign me up, right?  Yeah, we shared these emails with each other in the spirit of “Is it me or is this kinda bizarre?”, as well as to compare notes about how we were going to respond.  Grace Anne’s mom came up with an excellent response, pointing out that our kids already spend 30 hours a week together in school and that when it comes to constructive play dates it was probably best to expose them to other peers.  I, on the other hand, told her that we were moving to New Zealand.

This story illustrates a certain kind of politics when it comes to play dates amongst our ASD kids.  Everyone wants their kid to be around, if not typical, then “higher-functioning” kids.   But if most of us are somewhere in the middle, there’s always someone “higher” and there’s always someone “lower”.  I may be reticent to have Audrey participate in a play date with a kid who displays aggressive behaviors like Connor, but trust me, there are plenty of kids that aren’t lining up for play dates with Audrey.

One time, a mother pulled her daughter out of a summer school class because she started mimicking Audrey’s hand flapping.  And I was all, “Your daughter?  The one who tantrums non-stop?  That one?  Seems to me that you’d be happy to swap out a little hand-flapping if it shut her pie hole for a few minutes.”  See how ugly it can get?  Would I be dating myself if I quoted the great Tony Manero “Everybody dumps on everybody” speech from Saturday Night Fever?  Yes?  Never mind.

So does this serve to highlight yet another difference between parenting typical versus special kids?  Typical parents are generally happy for their children to be amongst the smartest and most advanced in any room, but if the same is true for a special needs child we yank them out of there faster than you can say “positive peer models”.  If that’s the case, then maybe those typical-ASD play dates are a win-win after all.

 Lynn is the mother of Audrey, a beautiful and amazing 6 year old girl with autism. Lynn's blog is "My Life As An Ungraceful, Unhinged, and Unwilling Draftee Into the Autism Army". You can check it out at http://www.autismarmymom.com


Anonymous said...

Awesome post, but wow. If I ever got an email like GA's mom got, I might have to get a little verbally abusive.

This brings up some good points. Ted and AJ go to a NT preschool, with Ted having his constant one-on-one because of his disruptive and turning aggressive behaviors. We have never been invited to a bday party or play date. I, mean, they are only 3 and 4, so that might be a bit young, and I am overly sensitive when it comes to my wee men, but...I feel so SHUNNED!!

Anonymous said...

Two of the great bloggers at this site today!!
Wow, no wonder Conner's mom is looking for play dates! Doesn't she know that parents might be avoiding if someone talking about nailing a mouth shut? She needs a new approach. C'mon Lynn, be brave and tell her ( it would make a great post?! ;)

Dani G said...

Yep, just one more thing that we deal with that a typical mom would never even consider! Typical kids want to play with the bird all the time. They usually don't mind that she ignores them, finds their books and dives in for the entire playdate. It's usually the parents that have a problem "does she ever play with other kids?", "is this usually what she's like at a play date?"

And I totally know Saturday Night Fever. That's the one with the fat, balding scientologist, right?

RacersMommy said...

I recently did a playdate with another mom who's daughter is on the spectrum. If I did playdates for Racer with NT peers he'd never play with them. He hates NT peers, the only friend he has in his regular kinder class is another student who is SpEd.

Only kids Racer likes that are NT are his sibs lol and even my kids are a stretch for NT haha.

Big Daddy Autism said...

We are about to embark on a multi-day play date with all the characters in this story except for Connor and his mom. At Disney, no less. I'm wondering if I can take a hint from Connor and nail Lynn's mouth shut with boards?

Unknown said...

This is one thing we haven't really done, shocking as I usually will try anything (that I can afford anyway). It just seems like so much is shoved down his throat in school and in therapies that our time that is really "our time" I like to try to keep simple.

Luckily Brian also has six cousins all under the age of six...so he does get a pretty constant barrage of (unwanted) playdates.

Anonymous said...

This is such a sore subject for me. All of your points are completely valid. The crux of my problem is I can't stand most people (and Connor's mom would definitely fall into that category), yet I'M supposed to help my son learn social skills. Ugh.

Wantapeanut said...

Did you see last week's Parenthood with Max's birthday? Reminds me of the mom who was asking lots of questions, like, can we ask the kids not to clap after the birthday candles, and my kid doesn't eat cheese, or whatever.

And as far as the flapping goes, imitation of any sort is a good thing. And if a kid who doesn't need to stim copies another kid's stim, it isn't a big deal. Since they won't get anything out of it, they'll drop it.

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