Several years back, when Marek was in pre-kindergarten, he began having regular playdates with a great kid in our neighborhood. Like many four-year-olds, Marek and his friend didn't always get along. There were power struggles about what to play and when to play it, and Marek's ADHD occasionally caused him to play too rough and make his friend mad. But after a few minutes of disagreement, things would go back to normal.
Over the years, I have sometimes found Marek's personality hard to understand. He likes other kids, but he is happy to play by himself if nobody is tuned into his particular area of focus at the moment. His first grade teacher and I had concerns about his social skills, since he would often turn down invitations to play with other kids during recess. Despite his occasional indifference to others, Marek seems to be popular. He gets together often with his longtime neighborhood friend. There are several other boys from his class at school who have come over to our house to play and have had Marek over in return. It's interesting to see how his social skills have evolved, even though he remains an introvert. He has figured out how to compromise and be a gracious host, and disagreements with friends are infrequent these days.
As in many other things, Lukas's social skills have not evolved typically. His communication skills are much better that they used to be, but he sometimes gets fixated on a silly word like "poop" or "underpants" or "toilet" and repeats it continuously, cracking up with adorable giggles that become less adorable after 10 minutes and downright unbearable after 20. He doesn't comprehend the social niceties of visiting somebody else's house - that it's not ok to tour the house without an invitation, and it's definitely not ok to get into your host's bed and leave your socks there. His understanding of social rules are better than they used to be, but he still needs plenty of guidance. And while Lukas doesn't have many meltdowns these days, the last thing I want is for one to crop up when I'm not around to handle it.
All of these concerns have made me hyper-vigilant when it comes to Lukas's social life. Playdates are generally scheduled with family friends who have known Lukas since birth and accept his differences. We've gotten friendly with some other families with whom we get together pretty frequently. In every case, the get-together is at my house, or I come to the agreed-upon location and stay. Marek gets to walk the two blocks to his neighborhood friend's house by himself, or get picked up and dropped off by another friend's mom. Lukas's friendships are always supervised by me.
Lukas's social skills may not be typical, but his desire for independence and a typical play experience is quite well developed. He wants to have kids over, kids that I don't really know well. He wants to be invited to these kids' houses. He wants to be dropped off and left to play without my involvement. He knows that his brother has more playdates, better playdates, with a bigger range of kids, and he is very angry about it.
"I always NEVER get to walk to a friend's house!"
"I want X to come over. I always NEVER have friends come over."
"I always NEVER get dropped off. I want to get dropped off!"
He's right to be angry. The situation is totally unfair. I get it. Although he is autistic, Lukas is an extrovert. Unlike his brother, he craves contact with people over anything else. By carefully managing and monitoring his relationships, I am holding him back and making him unhappy.
But I am afraid. If I let go and give Lukas more independence, will he be able to sustain a friendship? Will he learn to negotiate the little disagreements and come to a compromise like Marek and his friend? Will he wander off for a self-guided tour of the house, leaving his friend to play alone while he leaves his socks in unexpected places? How can I be sure these new kids are NICE, that they will be understanding and accepting of differences?
I know if I want Lukas to grow and develop his social skills, I have to change. I'm starting small. Last week, I invited a kid from Louie's class to come over to our house after school. I hovered for a little while, making suggestions for what they might play together. Then I made myself go to the kitchen to work on dinner. About 20 minutes later, I went down to the basement to see how things were going. I found the two first graders playing Minecraft on the Xbox together, earnestly discussing the best way to build a roller coaster. The scene was not one bit different from what I see when Marek has a friend over.
The school year is nearly finished, so I have some time to plan my strategy for next year. I think my initial goal will be one playdate per month with several different kids. After we have three or four kids over to our house, somebody is bound to invite Lukas to their house. And maybe with a couple more successful experiences under his belt, Lukas will be ready to go it alone. And maybe I'll be brave enough to let him.