Child's play should be, well, child's play. But for kids with autism, playing with other children can prove a really hard business.
At its core, autism is marked by a social deficit that makes reading body language and communicating effectively a struggle. Some kids actively avoid socializing, while others (like my six year-old) are desperate to make friends, yet haven't got a clue how to go about it. While they may not come naturally to kids on the spectrum, social skills can be taught.
One of my biggest fears as a parent is seeing my son grow up lost and lonely. He could well turn out to be an astrophysicist but all that is meaningless if he is unable to forge at least one meaningful relationship.
Every time I look out the window and see kids in the street racing their bikes or engaging in unprompted play, my heart gets stomped on like a used cigarette. These days, the sorrow is shifting. After a certain point, mourning your child's alter ego is futile and counterproductive. Of course I wish my son could be out there among those typical kids doing "typical kid" things.
I wish he could partake without being shunned or singled out for doing or saying something odd or offensive. These days our social circle—by necessity, by default—has shrunk to include mostly other families affected by autism. When my guy was in a mainstream kindergarten class, play dates were few and far between, and when they did happen, they tended to be disastrous and exhausting affairs.
My hope is that one day he'll form a friendship in his own right (and not simply one orchestrated and micro-managed by his mom). Maybe that won't happen for a while, but that doesn't mean I quit working with him to develop his social acumen. He deserves a life full of rich and meaningful relationships like everyone else.
If you're a parent with a child on the spectrum, don't give up on play dates. If you're a parent of a typical child, don't be afraid to arrange a date with that "strange" kid in your child's class. Everyone has to start somewhere. Put yourself, just for a second, on the other side of the glass.
Here are a few play date tips from author of The Pocket Occupational Therapist Book Series, Cara Kosinski:
Remember there's no such thing as a perfect play date. Every social interaction is a valuable learning opportunity.