The joy of parallel playdates

This year my kids made a friend.

 

“What’s the big deal?” some of you might be thinking. Well, the big deal is that making friends doesn’t come easily to them. And while they don’t seem to bothered by that, I worry about it sometimes (umm…more than sometimes), though I don’t burden them with my concerns.

 

I’ve been trying to relax and not give it too much time and energy. After all, they are really good at entertaining themselves, they enjoy spending time with one another, and they seem content. So I figured in time the whole friends thing would work itself out.

 

And just like that, they made a friend. Pretty much by accident.

 

One day shortly after coming home from picking my children up from school, I realized that I had left something outside in the car (as usual; I do that several times a week). I put on my shoes, opened the door, went outside to where the car was parked in the driveway, and opened the car to retrieve the item. I was closing the car door and about to turn and head back to the house when I heard a little voice shout, “Hey, miss! Hey, miss!”

 

I looked around and noticed a scrawny preteen boy on a red bike pedaling in my direction. He had an olive complexion, big glasses, and he was barefoot. He stopped, dropped his bike on my lawn, and walked over to me. He smiled and said, “Miss, my name is Michael. {name changed for privacy}. I have a project for my class that’s due the day after tomorrow and I just barely started it. Will you help me?”

 

I had never seen this kid in my life – yet here he was asking me for help. I admired his boldness (and I empathized with his procrastination). “What kind of help do you need?” I asked him.

 

“I gotta record different people’s responses and make a chart. Then make some observations and type it up in a report and stuff,” he replied.

 

“Responses to what?” I inquired.

 

“This,” he said, unzipping a fanny pack he wore across his waist. He pulled out a fistful of Zip Lock plastic storage snack bags and opened one. He grabbed its contents and shoved it near my face. “What do you think of how this looks and smells?” he asked.

 

I stepped back. “Yuck!” I exclaimed. “That smells disgusting. What the heck is it?”

 

“It’s slime,” he said. “But I added some extra things to it to give it an aroma. You know, to make it more interesting. Too much?”

 

I laughed. “Yeah, too much.”

“Okay,” he said, “forget the smell. Can you tell me how you would describe how it feels? Use as many descriptive words as you can come up with. But wait for me to get out my notepad and write it down.”

 

I smiled. I liked this kid. He was very straightforward.

 

Just then, my front door opened a crack. I saw my two youngest kids peeking through the crack. I assume that since I was gone longer than anticipated, they went looking for me. “Who are they?” Michael asked. “Ooh, slime!” my youngest son exclaimed at the same time.

 

“Those are two of my kids,” I answered. My son and daughter both came outside and peered at the slime. They love homemade concoctions of all types. “You wanna play with it?” Michael asked, and they nodded. Next thing I knew, all four of us were in the driveway bouncing and rolling the slime – Michael had made several, all different colors – and we were throwing it at one another and laughing. We were out there for quite a long time, having fun.

 

“Oh!” Michael interjected. “I need to get back home. May I come by tomorrow to get your responses?”

 

“Sure,” I answered. We helped him collect and ball up the slime and sent him on his way.

 

So that was the first time Michael came by. But not the last. After that day, Michael came by all the time, nearly every day for a week and a half. This was something we were unaccustomed to, as my younger children, both of whom are, like me, Autistic, have each only gone on one “playdate” in their lives with a non-relative. Having a friend come by to hang out was something we were not accustomed to. I wasn’t even really sure what to do. I was an ‘80’s baby and when I was a kid people played outside until the streetlights came on. But this is 2017, and kids don’t really play outside that much any longer…was I supposed to notify Michael’s mother that her son was stopping by my house on a regular basis even though he was not actually entering my home? And what exactly was I supposed to say?

 

I ended up asking Michael for his mom’s number and sending her a text. I introduced myself, thanked her for allowing Michael to come by so frequently on his way home, and gave her my address so she would feel more reassured knowing exactly where her son was. She responded by thanking me and telling me that Michael had informed her each time he came by, and that she had been meaning to let me know that Michael had permission to come inside my house if I was comfortable with that. I thanked her with a thumbs up emoji.

 

Fast forward to a few days later…we were planning for Michael to come over for a formal playdate. I cleaned the house so nicely you would think we were expecting royalty. I stocked up on snacks. I made the kids find all of the pieces to our different board games that they had spread all over the house. I fluffed the pillows and I lit scented candles. I slathered the kids’ faces, knees, and elbows with moisturizer so they wouldn’t be ashy. And we waited.

 

Michael’s mom came by to drop him off, and mercifully she only hung around for a minimal amount of small talk before departing. (Whew.) Michael and the kids went off to play. I kind of hung around just in case they might need me to help with something, nervously wringing my hands. I shouldn’t have worried.

 

Within minutes the kids were all engrossed in play. Michael was sitting on the couch playing on my daughter’s iPad; my son was on the floor next to him playing a video game; my daughter was sitting on the other side of the couch with Michael while she played with some of her toys. They were all doing their own thing. Occasionally one of them might call the other over to look at something cool they were doing, but other than that, they were playing alone. The experts call it “parallel play” because you are playing NEAR someone else, but not WITH someone else. They say that something is wrong with Autistic kids because they play in this manner, comparing it to the way toddlers play.

 

Those “experts” don’t know a freaking thing.

 

There is NOTHING wrong with parallel play. Sometimes people want to explore their own activities, their own interests, their own ideas. Everyone is not so socially dependent upon others that they need to be doing the same thing as others with others every second of the day. I think parallel play is a positive sign. It implies, “Hey – I really want to do ______, and you might not wish to do that, which is okay. But I care enough about you to still want to be near you even though we might be doing different things.” I don’t think parallel play is a sign of rigidity and closing others off; it’s an individualized way of letting others in while still being cognizant of and responsive to your own personal needs.

 

I think a playdate with any other kid conducted in any other way would have been a disaster. My kids wouldn’t have known what to do, and might have felt forced to “do” things in a particular way to please their guest. In other words, they would feel that they had to put on an act, be fake. And how exactly can one cultivate a true friendship and a true connection being fake? In my opinion, you cannot.

 

When dealing with those who aren’t neurotypical, such as Michael and my kids, one has to expand upon the traditional definition and expectation of what a “playdate” is. There is more than one way to bond. There is more than one way to enjoy someone’s company, and there is more than one way to forge a friendship.

 

There is more than one way to play.

 

We’ve had a lot of playdates with Michael since then. Sometimes the three of them DO all play together for part, maybe even a majority of the playdate; other times it’s completely or primarily parallel play. Every now and then my older kids might even join in on the playdate too (though pretty seldom as they have their own friends and their own interests). I no longer feel inclined to straighten up the house when he comes over, and he feels completely comfortable walking into my pantry and grabbing a snack. We have yet to play at Michael’s house as I don’t yet know what to expect and I like the way things are; maybe we will build up to a playdate over there one day…or maybe we won’t. For now, I am grateful and content with the parallel playdates we have at my house with Michael, which allows my kids to be who they are while also allowing Michael to be who he is – and allowing me to be who I am. I don’t have fresh baked cookies and freshly squeezed juice nor do I host what would traditionally be viewed as a “perfect” playdate. But our parallel playdates happen to be perfect for US…so it matters little what anyone else thinks.

Image is a picture of six black silhouettes of children engaged in various states of play; images are against a white background. Photo credit: pixabay

5 replies
  1. katherine anderson
    katherine anderson says:

    Thank you so much for sharing this! I agree! I have a 6 year old girl with autism and a friend that was a 5 year old also with autism. When we do play dates the other little girl just wants to play WITH my daughter. But my daughter wants to do her own thing. So two children, both with autism and the youngest wants to play together and the oldest wants to do her own thing.
    I think we need to stop putting all kids in a box. Every little human is different.

    Reply
  2. Adelaide Dupont
    Adelaide Dupont says:

    Morenike; Katherine; readers of *Respectfully Connected*:

    When somebody comes in for a project or a survey, it’s a big risk and maybe it has a few red flags.

    So good to know that Michael was friendly and understanding.

    And the first time I knew that parallel play was cool was when I read about two young women called Georgie and Emily who knew each other very well from the institution and home. They loved to draw alongside one another. “They weren’t really together but they weren’t alone”.

    And how Michael had put *everything* into that first slime jar.

    ““Those are two of my kids,” I answered. My son and daughter both came outside and peered at the slime. They love homemade concoctions of all types. “You wanna play with it?” Michael asked, and they nodded. Next thing I knew, all four of us were in the driveway bouncing and rolling the slime – Michael had made several, all different colors – and we were throwing it at one another and laughing. We were out there for quite a long time, having fun.”

    Accidental friends are great. The two were doing what they were normally doing and seeing you.

    “When dealing with those who aren’t neurotypical, such as Michael and my kids, one has to expand upon the traditional definition and expectation of what a “playdate” is. There is more than one way to bond. There is more than one way to enjoy someone’s company, and there is more than one way to forge a friendship.

    There is more than one way to play.”

    I want to know – what did the slime sound like? And taste like? I wonder if Michael has made edible slime since?

    Reply
  3. Kent
    Kent says:

    I disagree, to an extent. In my experience, the concern is not that they engage in parallel rather than interactive play, but they have not developed the skills to engage in interactive play *should they need them.* We all have skills we don’t use frequently, but are important to have for when the need arises. But, yes, there are also a lot of therapists who don’t seem to get this, and push kids to interact without understanding why it matters, and thus screw it all to hell.

    The other question I ask myself when I observe parallel play is, “Would this be of equal value if the individual were engaging in the same activity as solitary play, doing the same thing with no one around?”

    Reply
  4. Ellen
    Ellen says:

    You nailed it – again!
    I‘m in the spectrum and am sure my son is, but he‘s too young to be tested (we enjoy the time until the suspicious kindergarten teacher will succeed in pressuring us to the test). Although I worked through most of my special needs and came to see, feel, live and love them now in reality, having a kid started the whole process all over again, with issues, I didn’t have to deal with until now.
    I’m usually pretty good at feeling what my child needs and make it a reality we just live by, but sometimes I worry like you about these things at the same time, too.
    I have a NT friend and we both like to ‘parallel talk‘, just about our own issues, short comments on the other‘s interest are welcome, but not mandatory. I enjoy our conversations tremendously and she does too, so I got this parallel play-thing immediately – just the kindergarten teacher told me the other day she saw this as problematic in my 2,5-year-old…
    So this parallel play is actually a common thing? Great to know 😉 We will keep it up and I will stop worrying.
    Thanks.

    Reply

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