“The playdate conundrum” on A life less ordinary? struck a cord with me, not as a parent, but as a person who works with and advocates for children and youth on the spectrum. This concern — that children with ASD aren’t invited on playdates and don’t always have their playdate requests accepted — is number one on parents list when they meet me for the first time. It becomes a goal of sorts, or, perhaps more accurately, proof that our efforts are working.
I have wracked my brain for how “playdates” coalesced when I was a kid. First of all, we didn’t call them playdates. There is so much unbridled power in that word that it becomes larger than life. It seems so full of planning, and organizing, and structure that is lacks the spontaneity that I remember. We all recognize that kids on the spectrum need that planning and organizing and structure for success, so I’m not suggesting let’s throw the kids in the middle of a field and say, “Have fun.” But, just because those variables are mandatory doesn’t meant that this playdate thing has to feel so damn official and with such high of stakes. Like asking someone to marry you.
One could argue that with decreased opportunities and fewer acceptances, the stakes are that high. Hearing “no” or some carefully sculpted, ambiguous nonsense can become disheartening once, let alone with repetition. My middle school clients have responded most typically by simply not asking anymore. And this — giving up — keeps me awake at night.
So, two years ago, I was sick of doing nothing about it. I looked at a group of six boys and girls with AS and asked, “What are you doing this weekend?” They, of course, had no idea of their schedules or their families’ schedules, so I forged forth somewhat blindly. We set up an outing for all six kids to attend with me and without parents: the movies. The experience wasn’t entirely foreign to them, nor was the time laden with a significant amount of conversation time. Both of those variables would be future challenges.
I won’t say that the movie was a smashing success, but it achieved some desired results and has continued monthly in a variety of forms: movie and lunch, laser tag, bowling, dinner at a “nice” restaurant, a theme park, an indoor pool, a trip to the community center, an outdoor pool, and — my absolute favorite — simply hanging out at one of their house’s.
This last activity seems so relaxing, right? Wrong and that is why we do it. All of the kids come over, the parents leave, and we make it happen. We have always developed a schedule beforehand that has included whole- and small-group times as has specified what the options are for these activities. We have had water balloon and squirt gun battles, hide-n-seek marathons, Lego building contests, and, of course, video game time. “Hanging out in the house” has occasionally resulted in some significant outbursts that have reverberated through group for many weeks. But, at the end of the day, it has been nice to see kids I know and love enjoying themselves and enjoying the company of others.
I attribute the success of these activities to many variables but one that is most significant, in my opinion, is that the participants are all alike. They share a diagnosis that may not present in the same way twice, but the effects are hauntingly common.