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To the Parent Who Googled 'Should I Let My Kid Play With an Autistic Child?'

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First, as the parent of a child on the autism spectrum, I just want to say thank you for asking this question! That may sound odd, especially to some of my fellow parents of children on the spectrum, who probably read that headline and immediately went into ultra-protective-parent mode. It can be easy to hear (or read) about someone posing a question like this and then react with anger, bitterness, resentment, etc. But in all honesty, I wish more parents of neurotypical kids would ask these kinds of questions. Some may hear the word autism attached to a child, and it’s a deal-breaker when it comes to play dates, parties, sleepovers, and any other social interactions kids need as they grow and develop. At least by asking this question, parents like me have the chance to answer it.

First things first, let’s talk about the autism spectrum for a moment. For many people who have not had direct personal involvement with a child on the spectrum, the term “autism spectrum” itself may be a bit confusing. Autism is a developmental disorder that is unlike many medical conditions in that it is not “black or white” like, say, having the flu. When you have the flu, it’s an absolute; you’ve either been infected by the influenza virus or you haven’t, and there’s no in-between. With autism, however, it can be a bit different.

Autism is a spectrum disorder, which means there can be a lot of variability in the expression of the disorder from case to case. Each child who falls on the spectrum will have their own unique case of autism, and although sub-types can be similar, no two experiences are ever exactly alike. Like all kids, kids on the autism spectrum are unique, and that uniqueness can translate over to their particular case of autism as well. In the case of my youngest son, most of his issues revolve around social skills, social interaction, emotional control, etc. In the past, children like my son were diagnosed with a separate condition called Asperger’s syndrome. Asperger’s has since been redefined, along with several other similar developmental disorders, and is now considered part of the spectrum of autism.

Given that autism is a spectrum, the question this concerned parent posed to Google is not an easy one to answer. The bottom line is no one can answer this question but you, the parent of the child in question. It’s tough for me to admit that, given that I have a son who is on the autism spectrum. My gut reaction is to say, “Of course, your kid should play with autistic kids! Why the heck not?” But that gut reaction could be doing a disservice both to your child as well as the child who is autistic.

While every child on the autism spectrum is unique, and the way their autism manifests is unique, I’ve observed that some generalizations can be drawn. Many children on the spectrum tend to have a difficult time with social interaction. This can especially be true when the interaction involves peers of their own age group, new people, unexpected situations, and new experiences. And when you’re talking about kids playing with kids, odds are you’re going to get most, if not all, of those things coming together at once.

The best answer I can give you is if you are serious about reaching out to those in this community, then do your homework as a parent. Meet the family in question ahead of time, specifically the parents involved. Go over any concerns or questions you might have with them before deciding whether or not this is the right move for you and your child. Most parents of kids on the spectrum that I have met over the years will be very open and understanding about your concerns. After all, we’re parents as well, and just like you we want the absolute best for our kids. If the parents of the child on the spectrum do not want to talk or communicate about their child’s behaviors or needs with you openly, that might mean it’s not the best time for a play date.

This is also a good step, because it can give you at least a ground level understanding of what the complications and issues this particular child might live with every day. Once you have that information in hand, consider your own child and how they respond to different situations. Are they understanding of others’ differences, or do they tend to pick on other kids? Even though it may be done in good humor when they poke fun with other children, a child on the spectrum may have difficulty picking up on the nonverbal clues that can let neurotypical children know someone is joking around, and they may take good-natured ribbing as actual insults. That kind of confusion can be very hurtful, and it can be difficult to explain the situation once that damage has been done. Details like that can help you make an informed and responsible decision as a parent.

While it is true that some children on the autism spectrum can have complications that make social interaction with others in their age group difficult, if not nearly impossible, there are also many children on the spectrum who are able to have stimulating, fun interactions with their peers. And since social skills and interaction is one area where many kids on the spectrum struggle, it can be a huge benefit to the child in question. While the opportunities for playing with other children their own age can be rare, kids on the spectrum need that interaction to build their social skills and understanding. The more opportunities like that which are presented, the better a child can become at navigating the social landscape in less controlled settings like the playground, birthday parties and other social events as they grow older. By letting your child play with a child on the autism spectrum, you could very well be helping them build life skills that they will carry with them forever.

And, finally, consider the impact that something as simple as a play date can have, not only on the autistic child, but on their family as well. I will never forget the first time one of my son’s friends asked if he could go over and play. Such a small, simple gesture, but to me it was a sign that my son was making a real, deep, human connection with another child. One of my greatest fears, and a fear I’m sure is shared by many parents of children on the spectrum, is that my son will grow up alone and isolated. But in that moment, I saw hope. Hope that my son would be able to form deep, lasting connections with other people his age. Hope that he would not be left sitting alone at lunch, or isolated on the bus. I got to see the joy on his face as he left to go to his friend’s house and the broad, beaming smile when he came home. For our neighbor, it may have just been another afternoon riding his bike, playing catch, and being an 11-year-old boy playing with his friend; but for our family, it was so much more than that. For us, it was inclusion, it was acceptance, and it was a triumph.

As parents, we all want what is best for our children, and I know that desire for what’s best is likely where your question is rooted. So, again, I thank you for having the courage and the compassion to ask it, and I encourage you to look for chances and opportunities to have your children play with children on the autism spectrum. Something as small and otherwise mundane as an invitation to come over and play for an afternoon can mean a lot to a child on the autism spectrum and to their family as well.

Image via Contributor.

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Originally published: February 9, 2017
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