Hello bluebonnets, flip flops and patio weather! It’s officially Spring in Austin! I love love love this time of year. Everything is so green and alive.
This spring is a little bit different for me though. April is widely known as Autism Awareness Month (and today is World Autism Awareness Day) and this is my first year to participate as a parent of an Autistic child.
To be honest with you, I’ve been struggling to figure out exactly how my family will participate this year. My son Caleb was diagnosed with Autism just last August, so I still consider myself to be a newbie. One thing that I have learned in this relatively short timeframe is that there is SO MUCH TO LEARN! I’ve poured over articles, books, and blogs, asked hundreds of questions to other parents who are also walking this path, had lengthy and multitudinous discussions with all his therapists… and I still feel like I’ve barely scratched the surface of understanding my sweet Bubba.
I’ve been wondering what I can do to raise awareness, when I myself am still in the early learning stages. Lucky for me, I have good friends who figure things out for me on a regular basis.
One such friend expressed a desire to know more about how to reach out and be more inclusive of Autistic individuals, specifically within her children’s social circles. Ah ha! How perfect. I’ll write about it. This I can do. After all, I facilitate play between Caleb and his neurotypical sister Maddie on a daily basis… and trust me when I say some days are better than others! It’s not easy, but it’s important. With the number of children diagnosed with Autism continuing to grow, it’s very likely that our children with have classmates, teammates, or neighbors who are on the spectrum. It’s imperative that we provide our children with the knowledge and the opportunities to build friendships with their Autistic peers.
Here are my tips for thoughtful ways to include autistic friends:
First Things First
When Caleb was first diagnosed and we delivered the news to our friends and family, we received a variety of responses. There were some that seemed genuinely surprised by the diagnosis. We heard “He must have a very mild case” and “Are they sure? He looks so normal” and “I’ve been around Autistic kids before and he doesn’t act the same way.” There is nothing wrong with these responses. They simply illustrate how Autistic individuals are as unique as the rest of us.
There is a popular phrase that I’ve learned along the way: If you’ve met one person with Autism, you’ve met one person with Autism. This speaks to how every Autistic individual falls along a spectrum that reflects a wide variation of challenges and strengths. In our quest to be inclusive and raise inclusive children, it’s important that we see an Autistic person as an individual and not a diagnosis. Throw any and all stereotypes out the window.
That being said, there are certain challenges and differences that are common amongst Autistics. Developing friendships tends to be one particularly common challenge. In order to prepare our non-Autistic children to be open to building these friendships, we need to make them aware of these challenges. Some common difficulties are:
- Starting and sustaining a conversation
- Picking up on social cues (how people are feeling and what they’re thinking)
- Participating in typical children’s activities
- Understanding facial expressions and body language
- Adjusting to new situations
There are also some common behaviors associated with Autism. Learning what these behaviors are, the reason for them, and the function behind them is one of the first logical steps.
- Stimming (Self Stimulatory Behavior)
Stimming is the repetitive movement of the body or voice. It can express all different emotions; joy, anxiety, frustration, boredom. It can be fun or have a soothing effect. Non-Autistic people may find this to be a little uncomfortable, but once you understand the function of stimming, you can overcome any uneasy feelings. Its usually not harmful, as a matter of fact, it’s quite the opposite. There are benefits to stimming for the Autistic. It is not necessarily an indication that a person is unable or unwilling to pay attention, socialize or learn. It often functions to increase focus and attention span, as well as help tolerate challenging sensory situations or avoid meltdowns.
- Lack of Eye Contact
Eye contact can be stressful, uncomfortable, draining and overwhelming for some Autistics. In the words of Alex Lowery, “A lot of the time it feels spooky. It feels as though someone is looking right into your very soul.”
- Nonverbal communication
Some Autistics are unable to communicate functionally using their voice. Many of these nonverbal individuals will have other means of communicating, such as sign language, a picture book or a device like an iPad. Don’t assume that they aren’t able to understand what you say, just because they aren’t able to verbalize their thoughts. Always assume competence.
Talk to the Autistic Child’s Parents
The best way to learn about your child’s Autistic peer is to talk to his or her parents. Take the initiative and open up a line of communication. I assure you that we’ll be more than willing to talk about our child and answer your questions. We want nothing more than for people to understand them better and show interest in getting to know them!
If you are friends with the parent, then you likely already have opportunities to bring up this discussion. If you don’t know the Autistic child’s parents, look for a way to create the opportunity. If you see them at your child’s school or out in the community, approach them and introduce yourself, and suggest getting your children together sometime. See if they’d like to grab a cup of coffee so that you can get to know more about each other’s kids.
Some parents may jump at the chance to meet with you, as special needs parenting can be very isolating. Others may need to warm up to the idea, so try not to take it personal if they seem hesitant. Even if they aren’t quite ready, the fact that you showed interest and made the effort to include their child will have meant the world to them. If they decline, please don’t be offended. Simply let them know that the invitation stands.
Once you are able to chat with the parents, ask them to give you feedback regarding their child’s interests, communication preferences, and any specific behaviors that would be beneficial to know about in advance. Tell them about your child too, so they can properly prepare their child for meeting yours and set them up for success.
Talk to Your Children
It’s a good idea to prepare your child and set expectations. Take the information you’ve gathered from the other child’s parents and talk things over with your kiddo. Describe some of the behaviors they may notice. If the other child is nonverbal, explain to your child that he or she may or may not be able to speak, but it doesn’t mean they aren’t interested in playing and interacting.
Encourage your child to take an interest in their Autistic peer’s interests. If the Autistic child loves cars or playing the piano, be sure your child is well aware. Once they’re together, they may have a successful interaction or the Autistic child may not be interested in playing together, so it’s good to prepare your child for both outcomes.
Support your child in being a good peer model. Offer praise when they are demonstrating positive social interactions. I do this with my neurotypical daughter as often as I can manage. Rather than putting pressure on her to “set an example” for her brother, I simply praise her lavishly when she uses good social skills, especially around Caleb. It can help Autistic children to develop relationships when they see examples of good peer modeling. Remember to model acceptance and sensitivity yourself.
Hosting a Play Date
Both Autistic and non-Autistic children will reap the benefits of a well-planned play date. It offers Autistic kids the opportunity to learn typical social behaviors from other kids, while offering non-Autistics a lesson in acceptance and tolerance of people different from them. Like most things we do, acceptance is best learned through practice.
- When extending the invitation to the other child’s parents, try to be understanding if they request to have the playdate at their own home. If their child is new to this type of social scenario, it might be a good idea to have at least the very first one in their home where they feel safe and comfortable. Another option would be to meet at a playground, museum or aquarium during less crowded times.
- Ideally you will be aware of the child’s interests ahead of time, so try to plan activities in advance. This way the other parents can make certain the activities are suitable for their Autistic child and prepare them sufficiently. Just like non-Autistic children, preferences vary greatly. Some may like more structured play, such as baking or board games. Others will prefer unstructured. Ideally the day’s activities will appeal to both children. A few suggestions are treasure hunts, art projects, playing with a train table, hide and seek, and tag.
- Be mindful of limitations. Sensory sensitivities are extremely common amongst those with ASD. For example, some kids cannot tolerate having their hands dirty. If this limitation is known, you can avoid having finger painting as part of the agenda. If there is a limitation you were not aware of and it comes up during the play date, don’t panic. Just be sensitive about the limitation and redirect to a different activity that plays to one of the child’s strengths.
- Most families these days are crazy busy all the time, but a child with special needs may have additional appointments for therapy, developmental concerns, and medical requirements. If the playdate needs to be rescheduled, please be understanding.
- Discuss dietary specifics. You likely already do this when hosting play dates or parties. I’ve found that many Autistic kids have special dietary considerations, often being gluten-free, casein-free, and/or soy-free. If you take the time to prepare something special and the child doesn’t eat it anyway, please don’t be offended! They might just be too excited to eat!
- Keep playdates short but frequent. For the very first one, try starting with 30 minutes and if it goes well, you can gradually add more time as the friendship builds. If there is stress or conflict, diffuse it before the play date is over so you can end on a good note. Try not to be disappointed if it doesn’t go as well as you imaged or hoped. This play date will not be perfect! But when you think about it, even play dates between two neurotypical children rarely go without a hitch. Typical kids and special needs kid are all learning social skills and mastering play, and mistakes will be made. Our kids will learn and so will we!
- Stay present, supervise and provide support. Disagreements might arise during play, just as they do between typical kids. Be sure the ask the other child’s parent what strategies work best when their child is upset.
Including your child’s Autistic friend in a birthday party
- Receiving an invitation to a birthday party is thrilling for ALL children! Please do send a party invitation to your child’s Autistic friends.
- As with play dates, it’s a good idea to discuss the details of the party with the child’s parents in advance. Let them know about the venue, activities that are planned, what food will be served, and any miscellaneous information that could be useful (Mickey Mouse will make an appearance, a face paint artist, balloon animals, bounce house, etc.)
- If the invitation is declined, please don’t take it personally or let it dissuade you from extending future invitations. Parents are experts at knowing what their children can and cannot handle. Odds are that they very much wanted to attend, but the venue just wasn’t a good fit for their child.
- Try to have a set structure so the parent can prepare their child. Many Autistic children are more at ease when they have a visual timetable for events.
- As with play dates, it’s important to be aware of sensory issues at birthday parties. Kids’ parties are chock full of loud noises, visual stimulation and smells, and they are usually pretty crowded. If possible, see if the venue has an unused room or quiet area that can serve as a retreat in the event that a child needs a break to regroup. If the party is at your home, perhaps an office or guest room would work.
- One way to avoid the chance of sensory overload is to provide alternate activities that are less likely to overwhelm. For example, a Play-doh station, Legos, a sandbox or a water table. This gives them a way to decompress and an opportunity to rejoin the group later if desired.
- Help your child to understand that their guest may not participate in singing Happy Birthday. If they know in advance, hurt feelings can be avoided. For some kids on the spectrum, the noise is just too much. This was true for my son until just recently. For others, the unexpected transition can trigger a meltdown.
In a story that circulated recently, the mother of a boy who was having a birthday party sent an invitation to her son’s Autistic classmate, Timothy. Along with the invitation was a handwritten note for Timothy’s mother, asking if she would like to bring him earlier in the day before the whole class arrived. That way, he could still celebrate with is friend but be spared from the anxiety from the crowd. “Let me know so we can make it work,” the note read. This simple act of kindness brought Timothy’s mother to tears. As parents, let’s put our heads together and “make it work.”
I realize that all this extra effort might sound a little bit intimidating, and truth be told, it might be challenging. But please believe me when I tell you that this challenge is worth taking on. When you encourage your child to interact with children who are differently abled, and give them opportunities to see the similarities rather than just the differences, you are raising them to be the kind and compassionate people our world needs right now.