On World Autism Awareness Day , the wonderful Rohini Subramanian Kartriar (@rohinikatriar ) writes for indigrow. This, part magic, part prosaic and full-time mom to 2 adorable children, one of whom has been diagnosed with ASD writes about what we, as parents of neurotypical children can do to help our little ones make friends and to be part of a more inclusive village. Read on!
Inclusion is not a piece of pie, you have one day and indulge in once in while to satisfy the craving, it is the bread and butter you choose to consume daily ! One of my many blessings is having friends who have been willing and able to support me on the journey of parenting a differently abled child, and Indigrow is the brainchild of one of my closest friends. The idea of celebrating inclusion for not just a day or a month, but making it their staple diet is the reason growing with Indigrow is such a great idea for your little one.
If you too want to either encourage your little one to build a relationship with their neuroatypical friend, or want to build a relationship yourself with a neuro atypical child, I list below a few tips that may help you navigate the slightly unknown waters you may find yourself in.
1.Let’s say hello
Children on the autism spectrum often have issues with eye contact and name response when very young. You and your toddler may feel a little awkward saying hello to a little one who doesn’t seem to respond or even hear you. Cross that threshold of hesitation and you will find that even if a child isn’t saying hello or responding to you does not always mean they aren’t listening to you or will not interact with you at all.
Pro tip: Ask the parent to give you an idea of what the child is interested in and go down to the child’s eye level and hold out the favourite toy or cookie. The child will almost always respond to that and that’s their way of saying hello ! Also don’t expect your child and his friend to interact in the way neurotypical children would. This will be a different sort of friendship with a different set of “normal”. Allow it to go where it does organically.
2. Taking turns
When toddlers play they generally don’t share the toy, instead they play with similar toys that in the same vicinity. When you want your child and a neuro atypical child to play together, check beforehand the toys (blocks, cars, dolls) the child prefers or is most interested in and keep a set of them around the children and let them play with the toys separately at first. If not initially or even the first few meetings, eventually both the children will learn to be accepting of each other playing with the same set of toys and will come to a turn taking or sharing stage in time.
Pro tip: Ideally stand aside if you can and let the children form their own comfort zone with each other without trying to “instruct” either child. Give it time and intervene only for safety reasons. Also always keep 2 of the same toy if there are 2 children playing to reduce the chance of grabbing and tantrum !
3. Where we play
Depending on the nature of each child the “location” of the play date should be chosen. Some children (like my son) absolutely love the park and the swings and playsets and would immediately look for a companion to play with. There are others who get very distracted in large open spaces and seem to run about in every direction and not pay heed to any friends in the vicinity. Check what works best for the neuro atypical child (it seems unfair but this is the kid with more challenges !) and meet there.
Pro tip: Which ever venue you choose, give it boundaries such as only the swing and the slide set today in the park if its an open outdoors venue. If it is a room or smaller space, I would recommend removing too many distraction such as a TV screen or too many toys and keep the toys restricted to 1 or 2 at the most.
4. When we play
The time of day, how long to schedule the meet for, how often etc are pretty specific to the children in question. Toddlers are generally their most energetic mid mornings, and early evenings. Pick a time that works for everyone and I would suggest to start with not more than 30 minutes at least twice a week. Consistency in meeting their friend for a specific time period forms a routine for both children and helps them adjust and enjoy their time together more.
Pro tip : Patience is key here, so don’t be discouraged if even after a couple of weeks the children don’t seem to “connecting”. Connections at this stage are being formed but are not expressed in ways that we understand. So just give it time.
5. Games that work
As toddlers, the idea of playing together is still developing and children with autism are yet not so far away from their peers in developmental milestones. In my experience with neurotypical and atypical children at the toddler and early childhood years, games that work well for all kids are almost the same. A ball for throwing and catching, blocks, bubbles, water play, sensory colour play with fingers paints, cause and effect toys like a jack in the box, dancing along to rhymes etc. Developmentally the gap between a typical and atypical 2-4 year old is not so vast that it cannot be bridged in play time.
Pro tip: Keep the rules of play simple, keep only 1/2 toys out to be played with, keep an eye out for safety but otherwise let all the kids explore and play with the toys as they want to.
6. Meeting meltdowns
Toddlers are famous for tantrums and meltdowns, and children on the spectrum are no different. While you as parents may have planned and anticipated triggers, sometimes one doesn’t know what starts it off and then its hard to control. Always remember that the neuro atypical child doesn’t have the required communication skills to express themselves appropriately and may end up screaming or lying on the floor or any manner of expressing their discomfort. It is scary and alarming to witness a tantrum, but if you recognise it for what it is, a form of expression, you’ll be able to handle it better.
Pro tip: Co regulation is the name the game here. Stay as calm as you can and take deep breaths yourself first. Now try co regulating your child to your deep breathing routine for a few minutes. Once your child is following your breathing pattern, slow yourself down with long deep breaths. This almost always works !
Pro tip 2: Always try and ensure that the play date ends on a happy, positive note and not in tears or bawling. A pleasant memory towards the end is what little ones remember and will help ensure that the next meet is a happy one too !
7. Eye on the goal post
When you start down the road towards including neuro atypical in your child’s circle of friends, keep sight of WHY you are doing this. The road is sometimes bumpy and can seem challenging so keeping sight of the goal will help. You are doing this to make sure your child develops the life skills of interacting with differently abled people, compassion , respect and the ability to adapt to situations that are unfamiliar. You could also be doing this to be there for a friend who is parenting a child with special needs and the more you understand their journey the more fulfilled your friendship will be. Whatever your reason for doing so, please remember that you and yours will get as much out of it as the atypical child and his/her family. Be generous and respectful of that fact !
Pooh got it right when he said “The things that make me different are the things that make me, me"!
Written By Rohini Subramanian Katria (@rohinikatriar), Thank you Rohini!