What's more important to you - your child's IQ or EQ? While a lot of people value intellectual ability because it leads to employment, financial stability and a roof overhead, for some reason I am more concerned with my son's emotional intelligence. After all, no matter smart you are, it means diddly if you are lonely and isolated. But I realize my argument is flawed because the likes of Maslow would state that you need the roof before you can have anything else...
Notwithstanding, I want my 7 year-old to have friends - as in, at least one, maybe two. I am a realist. Because of his autism, I know he'll probably never be 'popular' or belong to a clique, just as I know he'll probably never pick up a hockey stick. And I'm coming to terms with that. I never wanted to be a hockey mom, anyway.
Socially speaking, the odds are stacked against my son. For him, building friendships is like speaking Greek or Mandarin (in fact, speaking Greek or Mandarin would come far easier to him). Socializing is a concept as foreign and uncomfortable as the wooly sweater knitted by a well-meaning great aunt.
And as much as I try to honour his unique self, I am cognizant that if he is to survive in this strange land of ours, sometimes he'll have to leave the house wearing said horrible sweater.
So I'm trying to teach him how to be a friend, how to have a conversation... In other words: all those unspoken social conventions that come naturally to most kids, but not to autistic kids like him.
It's not just autism, either. A lot of typically developing kids struggle with making friends. I was a painfully shy child, and many a times my mother tried to forcibly claw my hands off her pant leg when she wanted me to join a group of kids playing at a neighbourhood park.
Some kids simply need more pointers and encouragement to engage in meaningful play. Enter Fred Frankel, PdD, who heads up the Parent Training and Children's Social Skills Programs at UCLA, with the play date best practices for the reluctant or socially struggling child:
Ask your child if there are any children in his class or groups with shared interests. These are the kids you want as potential playmates. Forgo kids who are "friends of convenience" - you know, the neighbours, the kids of YOUR friends, etc. They could be the nicest kids but if your child doesn't gel with them, all the play time in the world won't lead to a lasting friendship.
Once you have someone in mind, get your child to ask them if they want to have a play date. Leave the details (time, date, and eating restrictions) to the parents. It's best to host the first few play dates at your place so you can oversee and, to some extent, control the situation. At first, keep it short and sweet, 1-2 hours, so you can end on a high note. If possible, arrange for siblings to be out or otherwise engaged so they don't dominate or interfere in play. By the same token, don't involve yourself in the play. By all means stay within earshot so you can see how the date is going, but that's it. After all, you aren't the one trying to make a new friend.
Have your child choose a few activities that are interactive and will force the kids to converse on some level. Tidy up everything else, so there aren't distractions underfoot. Any special or solitary games should be set out of reach beforehand. Best bets are board games, balls, etc. Avoid video games and TV. Sorry, but if your kids insist, schedule screens as "downtime" at the very end of the play date once the kids have already had some solid play together. Prepare a yummy snacks and whip it out when you think the kids need a breather.
Lay down some ground rules for your child ahead of time. For instance, a good host stays in same space with the guest and doesn't criticize them. If either child breaks the rules at any point, take them aside for a chat and a reminder. Don't embarrass or undermine your child by talking in front of her prospective friend.
While it's preferable for your child to host at first, be wary of being taken advantage of. If parents NEVER offer to reciprocate, even after several successful play dates, beware. You are not a babysitting service. And I speak from experience!
Fostering friendships is a lot of work for parents. It won't always be smooth sailing. But keep your child's best interest firm in your mind. It will be worth it in the end if a friendship takes root and blossoms. If it doesn't go well, perform a "post-mortem" of where the date went wrong and move on.
Image Source: Kelley Conkling