Autism Unexpected: It It a Playdate Or Is It Therapy?

As with many children who have autism, one of my son Jack’s biggest challenges is engaging socially with other children. He is lucky in that he has two brothers to play with, as well as two friends at school—one special needs and one typical. As luck would have it, that typical friend—I’ll call her Alice—lives around the corner from us.
Alice and her little brother have fallen in love with our family and come over to play every Thursday after school. Nearly every single Thursday I dread having to host the playdate. I’m tired, we have homework stretching ahead of us, and I would much prefer to just sit in my house and relax with my kids. But every Thursday, by the time the playdate is over, I am thanking my lucky stars that this wonderful child has chosen us to want to play with, because she is effortlessly teaching Jack the social skills that he badly needs to learn.I used to pay money every week for Jack to work on social skills with a therapist and other kids. I’m currently on waiting lists to get him back into such a group. But Alice does it happily and for free. Well, not for free. She does ask for a GoGurt tube every time she comes over.

Alice adores Jack. She is willing to let him choose what to play and she is remarkably tolerant of his social gaffes and deficits. If he says or does something to bother her, she will let me facilitate a solution. And she doesn’t hold a grudge. I am able to take the hour and a half she is over and teach Jack some practical, natural skills. The things Jack is learning from playing with Alice on Thursdays stay with him longer, are more transferable to real life situations (because they are real life), and are more valuable than what he has walked away with from more structured groups in the past.

When she comes over to play, she seeks Jack out. She will choose to play with him rather than Jack’s brothers, who are generally more engaging and rewarding. When the bunch of kids piles into the basement playroom, Jack will happily sit by himself upstairs playing with Legos. And Alice will sit with him. While Jack tends to ignore other children, he will talk to Alice and answer her questions. If I sit with the two of them and help them play, both Jack and Alice get the feedback, social input, and friendship that they desire.

It can be so difficult for me to find kids who want to come over and play with Jack. And when they do come over, Jack’s highly social brothers will often steal the kid away. It is a magical gift to have found this girl, who is in Jack’s class at school and who lives so close. I can’t imagine what I did so right to have this amazing karmic luck.

However it came about, I will joyfully accept it. Every possible Thursday I will welcome her into my home and parcel out the GoGurt. Then we’ll carry on with our own little social skills group.

Originally published at Autism Unexpected on February 18, 2010.