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Tuesday, September 24, 2013

The Playground Doesn't Always Mean Play When You're A Child With Autism

Every single night, after reading a story together and singing a bedtime song, David and I talk about his day at school. I can't just generally ask him how his day went, because the answer is always "good". Of course, in his defense, he almost never has a bad day at school.

Still, he's telling me what he thinks I want to hear, so I delve a little deeper. I ask him about his "special" (they  rotate things like art, music, library, and P.E.) and I ask him what he did at recess. We've done this almost every school day of every school years since kindergarten, when they mainstreamed him into public school with his peers. Most days, the answer was the same:

"I played by myself."

Early on, this used to upset me. A lot. A child with autism is a child who has a really, really hard time relating to his peers, communicating with his peers, and of course, playing with his peers.

By the end of kindergarten, though, David was sometimes playing. It wouldn't last long, and he had a habit of wandering off in the middle of whatever game or pretend scenario the other kid was involving him in, but it did happen. Sometimes.

By first grade it happened a lot more often, but still, it was occasional and he spent a lot of time playing pretend all by himself.

Then came the second half of first grade and the invention of something wonderful: David Tag! David loves to play tag, but only if he's "it". And what kid doesn't love it when someone else is "it"? David played tag, David was always "it", and suddenly, the whole class was playing with him.

Second grade saw more of "David Tag", and occasional references to playing "house" or "pirates" with other classmates. He still played alone sometimes, but more often than not, he was engaged with somebody else, even if it was only for a few minutes at a time.

Third grade brought a bit of a backslide. David wasn't playing "David Tag" as much because most of the kids were more interested in talking about TV shows, or playing with action figures. He also turned kids down when they did want to engage him, and that worried me. After a bit of prying with David and talking with his teacher and his aide, we realized that recess fell right after a prolonged period of math and reading, two of David's least favorite activities. He needed some alone time to decompress, and he took it. He settled into his own head, play-acted out his own scenarios and usually didn't hang with the other kids.

I understood it, but it hurt to hear. By the end of the year, he was playing with the other kids again, but we were back to occasionally. Usually it was just the girls. Well, David's always been a ladies man...

And that brings us to this, his fourth grade year. We're about a month into the school year now, and David has been sharing with me that pretty much every day at recess, he plays soccer with his friends. On teams.

If you've got a neuro-typical kid (i.e. a 'normal' one -whatever that means) you're probably thinking "Oh, that's nice." But having a child with autism means playing with friends is a big deal. Playing with friends on a team and thinking as part of a team is so huge, it might as well be announced via loudspeakers on a space shuttle landing in my front yard.

This is unexpected. This is wonderful!

This. Is. Epic.

And, as always, this is David, showing me (again) that he can do what I often worry that he might never do. I just need to let him unfold and get out of his way.

All things, in his own time.

A lesson for me, the mother who needs to remember that benchmarks are for other people's kids. Mine is too busy playing soccer, apparently, to sit on that bench and be measured.

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