Ellen Reed sent an email to her son’s preschool two years ago, asking parents if their children would play with her son.
Her son, Robbie, is now 6 and high-functioning on the autism spectrum. He has had intensive therapies since he was diagnosed four years ago. One of his therapists suggested scheduled, supervised playdates to help reinforce social skills.
More than half the parents from his preschool class in suburban St. Louis volunteered to help out, and Robbie had regular playdates with classmates during the summers.
“It’s been incredibly helpful,” Reed said.
Playing with another child is actually pretty complicated. There are lots of social cues to pick up on and unspoken rules to follow. There are expectations about taking turns, sharing, asking questions – things that may come easily to most children by a certain age, but require a great deal more practice for children with special needs.
Autism, in particular, which is characterized by difficulty in communicating and forming relationships with other people, can make friendship the hardest skill to learn.
Kim Stagliano, a Connecticut mom of three autistic daughters, has seen how isolating this can be.
“My girls do not have friendships with peers that aren’t facilitated by an adult either at school or in therapy or at a camp,” she said. The differences that set her children apart in elementary school widened as they moved on to middle school. “By high school, it’s really a chasm.”
Her daughters are 14, 18 and 20. They have never been invited to a sleepover. They haven’t been invited to a party since grade school.
They have nice interactions with other peers. “But that’s not the same as a social life,” Stagliano said.
She remembers a moment when her middle child, 13 at the time, stood at their front doorway watching a group of girls play outside in the neighborhood.
“Gianna wants friends,” the girl said, referring to herself in the third person.
“It’s a kick in your gut,” Stagliano said.
She asked her daughter if she wanted to go outside.
“We can ask them if they want to play,” she said to her daughter.
Gianna said no.
The situation was too intimidating.
Learning to initiate a conversation, engage and interact with a person is like learning a foreign language for autistic kids, Stagliano said.
“It’s about breaking down social interactions into tiny, tiny steps, into things that most of us do not have to think about,” she explained.
While there is much more awareness of autism than there used to be, many people may be unsure of how to encourage a friendship between a child who struggles socially and their own child.
How should the parent of a typically developing child attempt to include a classmate who appears to have few friends?
“Invite the child,” Stagliano said. “Send the invitation.” Then, call the parent. Ask if the child is on a special diet. If the invitation is for a birthday party, ask if the parent would mind staying with the child.
When Stagliano’s children were invited to parties when they were younger, she would tell the hosting parent that she would bring her child’s snack or cake since she was on a special diet, stay in the background during the party to make sure things were going smoothly, and leave when it looked like her daughter might be getting tired.
“Don’t be intimidated,” she said. “The mom will be so happy to get an invitation.”
Reed, Robbie’s mom, said her hopes and dreams for her child are the same as any other parent’s.
“Will he be able to do well in school, go to college, get married and have a family?” she wondered. When he was diagnosed at 2, “I didn’t think any of that was an option.” Now, “he’s doing so well, I think those options are distinct possibilities.”
She expects her child will encounter many kind and generous children who will look out for him, as well as some bullies who may pick on him.
Maybe the skills he learns from his weekly, highly structured playdates with his peers will help him learn the social skills he needs to survive. She hopes to be able to continue them for as long as he needs.
“Maybe when you are 17, you shouldn’t have your mom scheduling your playdates,” she said. “But if that’s something we need at the time, I’d totally be doing it.”
Aisha Sultan is a St. Louis-based journalist who studies parenting in the digital age. On Twitter: @AishaS.