My greatest fear when my daughter was first diagnosed was that she would never have a friend. At three she showed very little interest in other children, unless you count screaming at the top of her lungs if there were too many of them, or being physically sick at the thought of going to the nursery the next day. I wondered if other children would ever play with her, I wondered if she would ever care if they did or not. There were so many things I worried about in those days, but that fear was the greatest of them all.
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We’ve had some utterly dreadful play dates; her screams could have probably been heard over the other side of town the time her friend decided to rearrange her playhouse, and I’m not sure the time she decided she wanted a sleepover with two friends and therefore had to rearrange things in her bedroom was much better.
We tried living in a cul-de-sac; lots of children nearby to play with we thought. Unfortunately, you can’t pick your neighbours and much as she tried to fit in (and try and try she did) it didn’t happen the way we hoped. Most days ended with tears and meltdowns and more tears and more meltdowns.
We now live surrounded by sheep and cows, we have guinea pigs, and our days are calmer. She has a couple of very close friends, both of whom live about ten minutes drive away. They understand that there are things that can’t be moved when they come round to play, they don’t think less of her that sometimes she hides under her desk and cries if the work is too hard at school and they understand that when she tells them she wants them to go home, she doesn’t mean to be mean. They are friendships that I haven’t engineered, friendships her teachers haven’t engineered, friendships forged through shared interests, mutual respect and lots of caring on both sides.
I have come to realise over the years that I can’t engineer her friendships, I can’t make sure she has someone to play with every break time at school and that it’s ok that at times she needs to be alone. She likes other children now, as she has got older, they have become more predictable and also more interesting. But she also likes time on her own and that’s ok too. In fact the more children around at a given time, the more likely she is to spend some time alone.
So in school, I teach friendship skills actively, I want my students to have the skills to make friends when they want to. But when it comes to break time I don’t force them to play together. It’s ok if they need some downtime on a computer. It’s ok if they want to chat to a member of staff about their special interest. It’s ok to play with their friends. It’s ok to want to be together and it’s ok to need some time alone.
So next time you see a child with autism playing on a computer at break time rather than interacting, stop for a moment and think. Are they happy? If they are maybe right now that’s what they need. A classroom full of other children can be a pretty intense place. Take time to talk to them and ask, before you engineer a friend for that break. Sometimes we all just need a little bit of time to reboot.
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