Can I Help You?

In the middle of another hectic week we finally had a chance to hang out after school and play on the playground. This is one of my few opportunities to see how my daughter is navigating through the social challenge that the asphalt schoolyard can bring to a kid on the autism spectrum.

After a couple of minutes my daughter informed me that she wanted to play “bar tag”. Before moving to this school I had never seen this particular game before, so I’ll try to describe it. The apparatus consists of two metal parallel bars about three feet off the ground. The game consists of two children standing at opposite ends of these bars, pushing themselves up and swinging their legs over one of the bars, then running to the other end. The sequence of actions is repeated until one of the children gains enough lead time to tag the other, then the “winner” plays the next round with whoever is waiting in line. It’s a pretty popular game on our playground. There is usually a line of kids waiting. I had never seen my daughter play the game before, but I was willing to support her in the effort. Given her gymnastics skills I felt like she was up to the challenge physically.

We approached the apparatus where two children were already playing and two other children were waiting. We had never met any of these kids. I prompted my daughter to ask if it was okay for her to join the game and the two waiting girls said it was fine. So far so good. The boy and girl on the apparatus were playing a variation that I had never seen before where either of them could “stop play” by yelling “FREEZE!” The consequence was that whenever one of them got tired or behind they would stop play and so their turn went on…and on…and on…because they weren’t getting tired or catching one another. Now waiting is not my daughter’s strong point, but she really wanted to play this game so she sat patiently waiting for a turn. The other two waiting kids (perhaps wisely) gave up and went off to play something else. Still the duo played and froze until I wanted to…well, unpleasant things came to mind. My daughter said, “Mom, I’ve been waiting for a really long time.” I suggested doing something else. No, she wanted to play bar tag. So I prompted her to tell the kids that she had been waiting a long time for a turn. I figured this was a good step toward self-advocacy. The boy relented and went to play on the monkey bars…the girl, grudgingly agreed to play (which is a good thing since no one else was around and it takes two to bar tag.) I think my daughter sensed her reluctance and they played a few pretty sober rounds of bar tag, then the boy came back over and reclaimed his spot.

I have to admit I was kind of seething at this point. My daughter had (with support) taken very appropriate social steps to enter into cooperative play with total strangers – a big deal for her – and was met with total disappointment because two neurotypical children couldn’t meet her even halfway. It was discouraging for both of us. On the one hand I was so proud of my daughter for stepping up to this challenge. On the  other hand I was upset that it wasn’t a more positive moment for her. Was there a step I missed? I wanted to blame the kids, but they had no way of knowing how important this was for her, and short of “outing her,” or stepping in as “Mommy” and insisting that they play nicely with her…which in the long run won’t actually help her… there just didn’t seem to be a good answer. I came away realizing that my daughter needed to learn that life isn’t fair sometimes, but it was surely seemed like a rotten way to be learning it.

How do you respond when other kids don’t play nice?

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