What a Playdate Can Be Like for a Parent on the Autism Spectrum


My son made a new friend. He is on the spectrum, diagnosed with PDD-NOS, anxiety disorder, ADHD and more. So it’s exciting for him, for us, to see him connect with another child his age. But at the same time, it’s difficult for me because it means I have to be friendly with the friend’s parents. I am also on the autism spectrum.

Before I go any further with my thoughts, let it be known that I like the parents. They are friendly, down to earth and they have a child with special needs of their own. So I can connect with them.

We have gotten together with them on several occasions now. Mostly at a local gym, where the boys swim and play. There is a a lot going on there. Kids screaming and splashing and laughing, lifeguards blowing shrill whistles, people walking back and forth in my vision as they pass me, the noises of it all bouncing off the walls and ceilings and echoing back into my sensory-addled mind. And of course, the parents are talking and conversing with me. It’s a sensory nightmare in the the swimming pool area. I have to really focus on what is being said to me so I can answer back appropriately.  Focusing in that kind of atmosphere is difficult for me.

Yesterday, we were invited to their house. I approached my journey to their home as I often do. First I felt the flight-or-fight kick in. My stomach was in knots, my mind filled with the what-ifs. What if they aren’t as friendly as I thought? What if they offer me food or drink I don’t like? What if I throw up or faint or embarrass myself in some way? What if I can’t get out? After all those negative thoughts, I made my plan. (I always plan; it helps me picture what will happen and how it will end.) My plan was to stay for an hour and then say we had to get home for dinner. And lastly, I told myself just do it. You have to do it, Stephanie. So in the end of all this thinking and planning, I put my worries aside and did it.

We arrived at the friend’s house and right away, the kids were off — outside to play with trampolines and cats and bikes. The parents gathered in the kitchen. One sat at the table and the other stood at the counter. Their attention was on me. (Obviously, as I was the guest.) (Unfortunately, as well, because I don’t like being the center of attention.)

What followed was a full hour of conversation. Face-to-face conversation. I could easily follow the conversation about our boys, as I share that interest. But a lot of it was not related to the kids, and those were the parts I struggled with. Trying to follow and comment back on issues I have no link to, no interest in. I suck at that.

So there I was, having a conversation with these new friends, maybe 15 minutes into our visit, when I started to feel lightheaded. I had been making eye contact for that whole time. Afraid to look away. (I don’t know why I do that. Most people on the spectrum don’t look others in the eye. Perhaps it is the good manners my mother drilled into me as a child. Whatever it is, when someone is facing me and talking to me, I cannot look away.) I felt the old anxiety start kicking in, my face and body going cold, my brain getting fuzzy. The husband’s voice was in my head as I watched his mouth move and heard several words, and I nodded. Tried to regain my focus. But then I started thinking of how old he was, how old we all are getting, and I suddenly pictured him as a child of my son’s age. All the while, he talked and I stared as his words went in and out of focus.

Fortunately I was given several breaks from all this as the kids would often come in for drinks and questions. I really enjoyed their interruptions, let me tell you! As they walked away, my mind screamed at their backs, “Don’t leave!” But of course, they did leave. And the conversations would continue.

I cannot express the quiet glee I felt at the hour mark when I pronounced a thank you and a we-must-leave now. Then I was standing and collecting my things and all eye contact was broken. And then I was out the door and walking to the car and the kids were trying to talk about their time there and pointing out things in the yard and I was eyes forward. Eyes on the car. Ignoring all else but the getaway vehicle. The last part of my plan. The leaving.

The parents are coming over today with their children. To my house. I have my plan. It does not entail sitting in the kitchen staring at each other. Rather, we will visit outside, where we can watch the kids play and breathe the air. This is where I shine, in my own element where I can set the stage to my needs. It will be a better day today, I’m sure.

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