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To the Mom Who Invited My Son With Down Syndrome to a Kindergarten Playdate

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I am writing to thank you.  Ever since R was born and subsequently diagnosed with Down syndrome, I have worried about his friendships and social interactions. Would he have friends growing up? Would he be invited to play with other kids? Would he be included? As kindergarten was rounding the corner and he would be starting his elementary school career, my anxiety raged. At his preschool over half the students had other diagnoses, so the parents mostly understood and supported all the kids. What would it be like in an environment where hardly any of the kids had a disability diagnosis? Would the other kids be interested in my son? Would the other parents support and encourage a friendship with my son?

If I had learned anything in the first five years of R’s life, I had learned that I needed to be proactive. I needed to be willing to sacrifice in order to set him up for success. I was already doing it with everything: academic skills, self-care skills, language development. Social interaction and experiences were no different. I fully expected to go through this school year figuring out which of his classmates would be likely to come over, and then coordinating with parents to figure out how we could make that happen. I would take on the stress of initiating contact and then hammering out the details. I would add the responsibility of another child to my “caseload” for a couple hours, when I was just barely managing to get through the day with my 5, 3 and 1-year-old. I would do it because the relative value to my son is so high; higher than for other kids whose parents don’t need to worry that their child will be left behind because he doesn’t speak very well. R needed to build friendships early on so that, heaven forbid, the day comes when someone is mean to him, he will already have people in his corner to speak up for him if he can’t.

I had just started getting my bearings in the school year and had reached out to the first family about having a playdate, when I received your email about an after school picnic playdate at a local park for the whole class. That sounded great because unlike a playdate at someone’s house where it could get awkward because I most definitely would need to stay, and for that reason would also need to bring my younger two children, at the park of course I would stay and of course I would bring my other two kids.

For that first playdate I nervously got out of the car, not sure what to expect but my daughter was super excited to hang out with her big brother’s friends so we hustled over to find the group. When we arrived and the two kids who were already there (your daughter included) excitedly called out my son’s name, a wave of relief washed over me. They were happy to see him. The kids ate and played together. Yes, I had to constantly assist my son to encourage social interactions, yes, I had my hands full keeping him engaged and making sure my younger two were safe, but my son was having outside-of-school social interaction, so it was all worth it. This is exactly what I wanted for him, and amazingly, I didn’t have to organize it!

During the picnic you mentioned you wanted to make this a weekly occurrence and I couldn’t have agreed faster. I am sure you had no idea that your simple suggestion would be such a wonderful gift to me. I was overjoyed that my son would have a standing invitation to play with friends outside of school and I would not have to do anything except show-up. I didn’t have to send the emails, provide details, respond to questions, nothing. It was almost too good to be true for me as I realized how freeing it was for me. I was freed from the stress of reaching out, from the back-and forth of finding a time that worked, and most importantly from the anxiety of worrying that anytime someone rejected an offer to socialize or didn’t show up, doubts would creep into my mind. Is it really that they couldn’t come, or is it that they don’t want to socialize with my son? Over the course of the year I have come to realize, in part because of the friendships I developed with other moms during these weekly picnics, that it is very unlikely that other parents would be discouraging friendships with my son. In fact the opposite is more likely to be true. But, at the beginning of the year, I still didn’t know that.

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So, my friend, I thank you. By being proactive and having this vision for the kids to socialize, you removed a huge weight from my shoulders. I know that you will say you don’t deserve this thanks, and that you did not start the picnics for anything other than giving your own daughter an opportunity to socialize. To that, I say, it is true that providing recurring opportunities for all the kids to get together, benefits everyone, not just my son. Nevertheless, you took initiative in a world where so many people are content to just wait and see what happens or leave it up to the next person to take on. Plus, your vision was inclusive. So often playdates are about a couple of kids getting together while others are left out.

a group of small children at a picnic playdate

Your vision was simple, practical, fun, and an enormous gift to me and my family. I appreciate you more than you will probably ever understand, and I hope that this message of appreciation can inspire other parents of kids who have classmates at high-risk for being excluded to take the initiative to organize simple, recurring, inclusive social opportunities for their child’s class. In doing so, you may be giving an invaluable gift to another parent.

With much gratitude,

Photo submitted by contributor.

Originally published: June 10, 2020
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