Group activities for children on the spectrum can be hard. So far, we’ve had to pull Wilson out of swim school, soccer, and community preschool. Even birthday parties can be tricky. Wilson is so excited to be there, but he wants to open the presents and blow out the candles no matter whose special day it is. He cannot understand why someone else would get to do that instead of him. This was easier to manage when he was a toddler, but he is getting bigger. And louder. I’ve tried bringing a present and treats for him as a distraction, and even a set of candles so he could have a turn to blow them out after the birthday boy or girl. This hasn’t done the trick. We’re on high alert for the birthday song to start so we can redirect him before he potentially ruins a three-year-old’s special day.
When we attend events as a family, we typically divide-and-attempt-to-conquer and end up separated the whole time. One of us is constantly on the move keeping a close eye on Wilson, the persistent wanderer, and the other stays with Charlie, who is usually participating with the others at the event.
Wilson’s former preschool had a Mother-Son Game Night the other night. Typically, we do not attend these kinds of events anymore. I receive invites or hear about them from friends, with my immediate reaction being “this isn’t for us.” I feel sad for my son, that because of his autism he simply cannot participate in these fun events like the other kids his age. I briefly feel sad for me, too, and then I move on.
This game night stayed on my radar. I received reminder emails, saw posts online, and several friends asked if I was going. My answer remained a pretty hard “No.” I am ashamed to admit this, but I actually toyed with the idea of going without Wilson. Just so I could visit with my mom friends that I hadn’t seen in so long. I knew Wilson would not be able to participate but I was sad that meant I couldn’t see my friends either. These are the times our life with autism can feel isolating. I am so thankful for my sweet friend who encouraged me to bring Wilson (and didn’t judge me for considering to leave him at home!) She said her son would love to see him and they would have fun running around.
I knew what would really happen. I would chase him the whole time, try to contain his curious mind from getting into everything, touching anything, and taking people’s things. I would attempt to quiet his shrieks and screaming as people stare (for the record, I do not blame people for looking, his screaming is impossible to ignore but the glances inevitably fuel the feeling of inadequacy for the inability to have control of my child.) And any hope of a smooth exit? Not a chance. This is why this kind of event is just not worth it.
But this time, it was.
We went, armed with tools from Applied Behavioral Analysis Therapy that we had been working on for the past few days. I had a little white board, flash cards, and snacks for incentive. Wilson sat down and earned stars by answering social and basic vocabulary questions that he had been working on in therapy and at home.
Once he got five stars, he got to do what he wanted, which was DANCE! We did this little routine several times over. He was so proud of every star he earned and excited to go run and dance on the stage in the school’s auditorium.
We left before the real games began but we stayed much longer than I expected we would. When it was time to go, I told him he had earned his favorite snack and we would eat it in the car on our way home. I prompted him to say “goodbye” to some of his peers, he did, and we calmly walked out, hand-in-hand. I was so proud of him.
I was reminded that night that it’s easy to give up, to stay home. It takes hard work to face obstacles and learn from them.
I am not saying we’ll be going to every single event we come across. Not by a long shot. Our life is still about balance and doing what’s right for Wilson and our family. I want to find the courage to do more though, and to never underestimate my little man.