“I am the proud allistic (non-autistic) mother of an autistic teen daughter. For most of her life, my daughter has found birthday parties, school discos and other common social events to be very taxing.
When she was young, the overwhelming message that my husband and I received was that our daughter should strive for “indistinguishable from her peers” as the optimal early intervention outcome. That is, if she did enough hours each week of intense behavioural therapy, perhaps she could head to school and pass for “just quirky”.
Because we didn’t know that much about autism, and because we were coming from a place of fear, we dove right in. A big component of her early intervention was social skills training: how to play like other kids.
When she entered her first year of school, I felt increased pressure to help her “adapt” socially. I became the most zealous play date host and birthday party host under the belief that if I set up really attractive environments – great food! great activities! – it would put her in a good light in front of her neurotypical peers. I thought that the more exposure she had to these situations, the more comfortable she would become over time. Often, my daughter would retreat to her computer or bedroom while I entertained the masses.
Still, I persisted.
If she did join in a game with her peers or seem to be having fun, I would over-document with photos, as if to convince myself, “See, look at those social skills! She’s ‘fitting in’!”
I also felt pressure to say “yes” to every birthday party invitation and every play date opportunity because I wanted so desperately for her to be included and accepted by her neurotypical peers. I worried that she would be forgotten if we said, “No, thank you.” Along with that, I felt the pressure to be an ever-present, ever-eager school volunteer – in the hopes that if other parents really liked me, that would help pave the way for her to have more opportunities.
As you might imagine, all of this was very hard work … for me and for her. Especially for her.
And the older she got, the clearer it became that I couldn’t create friendships where there was little base of shared interests or understanding. Her primary school, which was relatively small in size, was socially limiting. There were only a small handful of boys (all neurodivergent) who “got” her – and the girls, while a very nice group, really weren’t on her wavelength at all.
At one stage, the school psychologist recommended more social skills training. When I suggested that the school invest in helping neurotypical peers become more inclusive of neurodivergent classmates – instead of making my daughter do all of the heavy lifting – she looked at me as if I had six eyeballs.
Fast-forward to now.
Recently, we took a road trip as a family, and one of the highlights was that my daughter and I spent time with two of my autistic friends, one of whom has an autistic daughter. Both girls were a bit nervous about meeting a “stranger”, but once they met, they clicked immediately over shared interests and common experiences. After nearly 3 hours of nonstop talking and giggling, it was difficult to say goodbye!
I’ve seen that same dynamic when my daughter participated in a weekend camp for autistic teens and a program for autistic gamers. As I am typing this, I can hear the laughter and ease coming from her room as she designs a game with a friend.
Not surprisingly, all of her so-called “social deficits” – the ones that intense early intervention tried to combat – disappear or become greatly reduced when she is with people who share her passions and relate to how she processes the world. I see a young person who is engaged, collaborative, supportive and happy as opposed to the girl who so many people might pigeonhole as awkward or aloof.
Even if our intentions are good, I really think we allistic adults tend to impose our definitions of what “social skills” look like on autistic kids. The social skills journey that has unfolded over the past decade is not hers, it is mine. She has always had social skills. I just needed some enlightenment on how to support them!
If I could go back in time, I wish I had worried less about “missing out” and instead had dedicated time to a few friendships that might go the distance. I wish we would have spent less time with social skills training and more time doing activities that our daughter actually relished. I wish I hadn’t spent all that money and time trying to over-orchestrate social opportunities. Most of the kids who we entertained for all those years aren’t even in my daughter’s life these days. They dropped her as a “friend” as soon as they were old enough to pick their own groups and birthday party lists.
Most of all, I wish we could have enjoyed the community we have now – one that includes so many autistic friends and mentors – because I know we would have learned a lot more and made far fewer stumbles.
All of the many autistic people in our lives have told my daughter the same thing: “You will find your tribe.” And she has – a mix of offbeat, interesting, gaming-loving, art-loving neurodivergent and otherwise out-of-the-box thinkers. To my fellow allistic parents of autistic kids: I hope that all your kids find their people, too, because it can be so hard for them – and for us as parents – to fit in. But when you find those kindred spirits, it’s like coming home”.
I am Cadence expresses gratitude and appreciation to our community member who shared these honest, insightful lessons with us.