When My Son on the Autism Spectrum Found New Friends at a Playground
“I wonder if the parents are going to turn their car headlights on the field soon?” I thought as I stood, half turned, to watch Bobby’s soccer practice. It was twilight, and the practice would continue for another 40 minutes.
I had brought Declan, my son on the autism spectrum, up to the fields to play on the playground that stood near. As I turned my gaze from the field to Declan, I saw pure joy. He was running around the perimeter of the playground, making sounds and shaking his head back and forth.
I could tell he was very happy.
I must always be present and aware, but that does not mean I need to be bored. Seeing his contentment, I looked down to the wood edging encompassing the playground and began to walk the wood like a balance beam.
I heard the rolling bar slide squeak and looked up to see Declan’s eyes large and the smile deepen. As he came to the end of the slide he sat for a second and laughed. Declan jumped up, shook his head and ran to go down the slide again.
As Declan ran, I saw two shadows standing in the distance. Two boys came into view, both wearing hooded sweatshirts. One boy was carrying a half-filled water bottle. The boys appeared to be about 8 or 9 years old.
Their red cheeks and heavy breathing made it seem they had been at the playground before and had left to spend some time running around the entire park. They came to a halt when they returned to see the playground had some new people in it.
Declan saw the boys and in his joy, he ran over to them and ran around them laughing. Not one to say, “Hi!” Declan hit one boy on the arm, laughed and ran away.
It is very selfish of me to say, but the empty playground is my favorite playground. Declan is free to be himself. I do not need to protect him from others. I do not need to protect others from him. I do not need to explain anything to anyone.
So when I saw the one boy lean in and cover his mouth to whisper to the other boy, I got nervous. I imagined him saying, “Something is off with that kid.”
I continued my trek around the boards, although my vigilance doubled. The boys entered the playground area and began to flip the water bottle. Declan continued to run around the playground, go down the rolling bar slide and run to the boys. Everyone seemed to be laughing and enjoying their own ventures on the playground… until the rotation changed.
I heard some talking when I turned the board corner and looked to see Declan had the bottle. He was flipping it wildly — pretty much chucking the bottle across the play area. The boys ran with him to retrieve the bottle, but Declan got to it first and threw it again. And again. I could see the boys talking to Declan as they followed him to the new bottle location. Finally, when the bottle landed for the fifth time, I intervened.
“Declan, give the bottle back to the boys so they can play, too!”
“Oh, that’s OK,” one boy said to me, “We gave it to him to play.”
“Are you sure?” I asked.
And as Declan threw the bottle again, I heard what the boys were saying to him: “You almost landed it! Great job — here, try again!”
And my heart melted.
I had been wrong.
And it felt so good.
I have seen a child whisper to another child before about Declan. I have seen them point. I have seen them laugh. I have seen them shrug and leave.
None of this has ever phased Declan. But it has always hurt me.
And before I gave these boys a chance, I assumed their compliance was because they didn’t know what to do or say. I assumed once their bottle was returned to them they would leave to whisper negative or disparaging remarks to one another about their experience with Declan.
Instead, they were promoting interaction. They went out of their way to include Declan in their activity and they used kind words to make Declan feel good.
The sun did set and we all left for our cars. The soccer practice ended, and soccer players hopped into cars with the headlights already on. And as I looked in my rearview mirror as we drove away, I saw my smile matched that of a little boy in the back seat.
We just had the best playground experience.
This story originally appeared on Autism in Our Nest.
Getty image by johavel