Dear Parents of “Typical” Kids,
I could have been labeled a helicopter parent for my oldest son, who was diagnosed with Asperger’s when he was 3 years old. When he started middle school eight years ago, I tried to arrange for neighborhood kids to walk or bike to and from school together. I knew that other parents were not making plans for their kids. But my son was completely unaware of others’ plans and he wanted to be included and didn’t feel comfortable calling to make arrangements on his own.
“Could the boys ride to school together?” I asked a friend.
“I’m not sure what they’ve decided,” she responded.
“Maybe we could try it for the first couple of days?” I offered.
After three days of trying, my son was on his own. He couldn’t speed up, and they didn’t slow down. It didn’t work for them to ride together.
I get it. My youngest son is starting middle school and he makes his own plans for getting to and from school with his buddies. I’m not thinking about which of his friends might need extra help from him at the start of the year. I don’t think the parents or children from eight years ago were uncaring people for not continuing to include my son when they wanted to ride to school at a faster pace. But it would’ve made me jump for joy if they had considered how to make it work for all of them.
It’s hard to have such different needs from the majority of people around you. I had to remain more involved than other parents so that my son could be part of the group. I was the mom asking other parents what their kid’s after-school plans were weeks before school began. I was the mom offering to host kids at my home so my child had a friend to interact with. I was the mom providing fun activities and endless ice cream to make my home the gathering spot. I was involved in social planning longer than other parents. And that can be confusing and overwhelming for other parents who don’t have a child who needs extra help.
Please remember that I’m not bugging you because I want to micromanage my child’s social life. Eight years ago, I was teaching my child how to make plans with friends because he wasn’t able to do it on his own yet. Other kids ventured out into the world with less parental hand-holding, but mine still needed help to interpret and manage the increasingly demanding social world of middle school.
I know it’s not your job to look out for my kid, but I hope you can imagine what it would be like if your child was the one struggling socially. I hope you can imagine that another parent or child reaching out would make all the difference between being included and being ignored. Here’s how you can help:
1. Ask the parent and child what they need. When my oldest son was in middle school, another family wanted to include him in a birthday party at a noisy venue. They asked my son and me how to make it comfortable for him to participate. They were direct and kind and left us with the feeling that it wasn’t a big deal to be accommodating.
2. Offer to try something. Sometimes parents are worried about committing their child to weeks or months of plans with other children. Offer to try something for a week, and see how it works out for all the kids.
3. Give children choices about how to build community. Allow kids to choose how they’ll try to include all kinds of kids. It’s not an option to decline building a more inclusive community, but they can choose how to be involved in the process.
4. Give me the benefit of the doubt. If my behavior confuses you, please assume I’ve got a good reason to be anxious. Kids on the autism spectrum don’t typically transition easily to new schools, people or activities. Before any major transition, there was an array of activities that I did with my son to help him prepare and understand what the new setting would be like for him. It included touring the space, meeting with new teachers, looking at the place’s website, talking to students who were already at the school, having go-to people set up for the beginning of the year and having a plan B in case my kid got anxious. It may seem like overkill to you, but that’s what allowed my child to participate in a typical day at a typical school.