Last week, I was filling out a zillion forms for one of the studies that we enrolled Peanut (my 3 year old) in a few years ago. By the way, my inner jury is still out on whether these studies were good or bad – as a social scientist (and just an intellectually curious person, in general) I appreciate the importance of these studies. But as a mom, they were time consuming and stressful. In our particular case, Peanut ended up with a very marginal autism diagnosis. So, it kind of feels like one of those “put your kid under a powerful enough microscope and you’re going to find something” situations. On the other hand, when Tuffy was diagnosed, we found out that siblings of autistic kids are very likely to also have autism, and when we signed Peanut up for these studies we were still reeling from the guilt of not getting Tuffy diagnosed earlier. So, it provided some much-needed peace of mind despite adding quite a bit to our to-do list. (And by the way, one of the studies included MRIs of our baby’s brain, and that study is now published in “Nature” – so at least someone in this family has made it into a top journal!) And when Peanut did get his diagnosis we enrolled him in a really wonderful developmental preschool program. This, of course, sucked up more of my writing time, but given that I did have some minor concerns over his behavior (especially his ultra-picky eating) it was reassuring to see him thrive in that environment and to talk with an OT about his diet, etc.
Back to the current forms. Most of them were familiar (if I do a Vineland assessment one more time I will have the darn thing memorized). But now that Peanut is 3 there was a new form about his interactions with peers. This “form” – or should I say packet – was about 12 pages long! On the first page, it asked me to list 5 friends that he plays with outside of daycare or school and not counting family. I mean….What?!?! And it went on to ask questions like: “How many times in the past 3 months has this child played at your house?” for each playmate. What working parent schedules playdates for FIVE different kids on a regular basis? Of course, when I finished hyperventilating, I read the part that said something to the effect of “we don’t expect your child to have 5 friends listed so just fill in as many as you can.” But still. This is the stuff of my nightmares. (And, BTW, I did come up with two friends, but Peanut has only played with them because they each have an older brother who is friends with Tuffy.)
Here are the things I want to complain about –
a) Obviously it’s very hard for working parents to schedule playdates. Most families don’t want to get together after 5pm on a weekday, and if you work all week your weekends are typically fairly busy with errands and other family activities. When I fill out forms for autism studies I always get the sense that they are designed with a work-at-home mom in mind, and I feel like I am not living up to the special needs parent ideal
b) Despite the fact that it is hard for working parents to schedule playdates, I have consistently made a strong effort to line up playdates for Tuffy. (Less so for Peanut – sorry second-born!) Unlike many other parents, I could never rely on daycare providing enough social interaction for Tuffy, since he tends to get overwhelmed in large groups and would often choose a solitary activity. Lining up playdates seems like something that shouldn’t be that much work, but sometimes it was SO mentally exhausting. Sometimes I’d email someone, and they would say, “Oh yeah, let’s get together, but I’m super busy right now,” and then I’d never hear anything else. If Tuffy really liked their child, I’d try a couple more times, but let’s face it: I’m not very pushy, so eventually I’d drop it. We also had a lot of one-time playdates that just never went anywhere. (Yes, it’s sort of like dating – Ha!) It was hard, especially in those early post-diagnosis months as I was trying to figure out what/how much to tell people about Tuffy’s diagnosis. Occasionally people would just stop replying to playdate emails. Most of the time I’m sure it was sheer busyness, and I highly doubt anyone was actively thinking, “I don’t want my child to play with an autistic child.” But I think sometimes the other kid wouldn’t be super excited about playing with Tuffy, given that his interests were pretty limited a couple years ago. And if you’re a busy parent, you want the limited time you have for playdates to be as fun for your child as possible, I get that.
c) Tuffy, being who he is, needs a lot of time to warm up to another kid. This means to maximize what he gets out of the experience we need to have frequent, regular playdates with the same child!
d) Given all these complaints, it would perhaps make the most sense to schedule playdates with non-working moms. But they tend to want to do playdates at 10am on a weekday. Luckily we met another family with an ASD child who hit it off with Tuffy and whose mom worked part-time and therefore was flexible enough to schedule frequent playdates but also understanding of my schedule.
And after all that effort that went into making ONE FRIEND, we moved away!
When you have an autistic child, playdates are simultaneously more critical and more difficult. In general, our most successful playdates have been with other special needs kids (usually ASD), partly because the kid will not be expecting Tuffy to act like a neurotypical child and partly because the parents are invested in having frequent playdates. I think this is fine, by and large, but I would like to make parents of typically developing children aware that their child can be a valuable resource and role model for an autistic child. If I don’t get a job on the market this year, one thing I would like to do is start a non-profit that offers parents of typically developing children a crash course in autism and how they and their child(ren) can support ASD kids during playdates, and perhaps set up a playdate matching website to go along with that.
EM, that is a marvelous idea! I would also note that, although SC1 is not on the autism spectrum, The Hub and I were convinced for the first three years of her life that she was; so, I can relate to a lot of this. Especially the challenges of scheduling playdates as a working parent.
PS. I would like to add that while the scheduling of playdates can feel like a burden, and the time spent on playdates often takes time away from my work, I truly enjoy the vast majority of our playdate time. We actually had a few friends over last night, and there were 5 kids in our house (including Tuffy and Peanut), all running around, rough-housing, and screaming, and it was an absolutely joyous thing to watch. Also, we happened to really luck out when we moved, because we live in a townhouse complex with TONS of kids. I cannot overstate what a huge deal it is to have friends within walking distance.