When you have a child on the spectrum, playdates can be hard. Yes, even for us high-functioning parents. Playdates are necessary – every time you participate in one, you are giving your child a social learning experience. And yet… sometimes for the ASD parent, they’re an in-the-face reminder of where your child is not, developmentally. Oh, I’ve long given up on the checklists – all children develop at different rates. But let’s face it, at the end of the day, there really are some general developmental milestones that children have mastered by certain ages.
Honestly, it can be easy at times, for a parent (and the family) of a high-functioning autistic child to forget that there’s anything wrong, because they can seem so normal at times. In fact, new studies show that females are often harder to diagnose, because they frequently present with different symptoms than males (and the screening questionnaires are all based on the stereotypical male autism traits). For one, most studies show that females with HFA/Asperger’s syndrome, are far more likely to play with toys appropriately and have imaginary play skills, than males. Females tend to be more socially interested. Females also are far quicker to pick up skills through mimicking, than boys, and studies show that females often are able to hide their symptoms through learning to compensate in other ways. All of these are ways that can make it far harder not just for family and friends to recognize autism in a female child, but even professionals.
For our daughter, we’ve learned that over time she gets into comfort zones. And when within those zones, honestly, she truly can look and often act like a perfectly neurotypical child (I prefer to say neurotypical than normal, because, to quote Whoopi Goldberg, “Normal is nothing but a setting on a washing machine!”). For our daughter, that “zone” means inside our home, as well as a couple other familiar homes, and/or when with familiar people. There are some public places she’s grown very comfortable in as well – the swimming pool where we go for weekly lessons, and the dance studio.
To see our daughter in our home, honestly, it’s often hard to think of her as autistic. Especially for an outsider, or someone who is not with us frequently. She’s affectionate, speaks well, and is engaging us, and others, more all the time. Granted, we (those of us with her every day) still know the “quirks”, such as her finger stim that comes out when she’s excited or stressed or struggling with receptive speech. There’s still her sensory issues that we’ve learned to work around and find ways of avoiding and of course her controlling, rigidity issues. And while to an outsider, when in her comfort zone, it may look like she has phenomenal verbal abilities/imagination during play, we know that much of it is scripted/mimicked, picked up from tv shows, movies and her big brother (that said, thanks to ABA therapy, her own imagination is improving by leaps and bounds all the time).
All of this to say… we had a play date with a friend of mine today, and her two children. Her son is only a year or so younger than my son, and their daughter is roughly a year and a half younger than our daughter. It was so great to get together, and have adult conversation – I even got to drink an entire cup of coffee before it got cold! Our sons had a blast playing together. Our daughters had fun playing as well. However, as I was there… I could see the difference. Her daughter, at two, spoke more than my daughter, at almost four. Her daughter displayed better imaginary play skills. Outside her comfort zone, and without her big brother there to glean ideas and phrases from, our daughter roamed from toy to toy, stopping to use one for a few minutes, and while using them appropriately – used them silently, without any noises or imagination. Ashley rarely attempted to engage my friend or I, while my friend’s daughter certainly did so. While Ashley would chase the boys upstairs to the bedroom to play, her silence came through loud and clear on the baby monitor – letting me know she was self-absorbed in something, instead of trying to join in the play.
As my friend was sharing some of her daughter’s two-year-old antics, common escapades that any child that age would do, I would comment how our daughter would do the same thing! While there I witnessed my friend’s daughter’s cognitive skills as she was going over the letters she’s learning, and I thought again – Oh! Ashley’s learning her letters, too! I thought it cute they had so much in common. Though, later as I thought on this, there was that moment of feeling like, “Y’know, is it actually cute that my almost four year old, still has that much in common with a two year old? That she’s still trying to learn skills that most have mastered by now?”
I won’t lie and say that it doesn’t make my heart twinge a bit at times, but honestly? I’m okay with it. Ashley is being who she was meant to be. She has had a lot to overcome in her short life – and I think she’s doing an incredibly amazing job of it. Yes, the play date in a sense was a reminder that she is definitely behind her peers socially, but it was also a reminder of all the way’s she’s improved, too. And she has come so far in the year since her diagnosis, especially when out of her comfort zone. For one, her eye contact has greatly improved with unfamiliar people. While she may not engage us as much as a “typical” child – she is still very content to be perfectly all alone, she is seeking us out in play far more than she used to. She is also learning to seek out our help, which is huge! She is also engaging her peers more, too. And thanks to therapy, her expressive vocabulary is phenomenal, I’d even dare say advanced for her age, which is clearly evident when she’s trying to tell us off!
And so, instead of feeling sad that she’s not at the same peer-level, we’ll learn from today, and all the other future playdates. We’ll use them as a way to help us work on those areas she still needs some help. And we’ll continue to proud of all her achievements.