What happens when you’re born without the natural ability to develop body language?
One thing it meant for me growing up: a long series of awkward playdates.
Lacking both non-verbal communication and the ability to interpret it in others, I was years behind other kids my age, socially speaking. I wanted friends…sought out interactions…but struggled to make connections work. Asperger’s wasn’t a diagnosis when I little, so there was no real way to understand what was happening. I just stumbled through interactions, inadvertently pushing kids away. I watched in great confusion as my best efforts created a result that was the opposite of what I intended.
I quickly learned to hold back, avoid others. I developed a fear of people.
My parents, on the other hand, responded to all of this by arranging playdates. An immersion therapy, of sorts, and I suppose I can see the crude logic behind it. “If he can’t make friends on his own, we’ll schedule a friend for him…problem solved!”
To their dismay, the playdates didn’t pan out. They were basically a social transplant procedure where the recipient (others) rejected the new material (me). Despair ensued. These encounters just provided me with new opportunities to struggle with basic social mechanics. However, when things went awry…and other parents stopped agreeing to play-dates…my parents just kept finding new people to approach and new-play-dates to arrange.
It was a difficult situation to problem solve, because I did want friends. So they engaged in efforts to make sure I had them. But since the solution was only surface level- just literally putting me in the same room with another kid- the more fundamental issues went ignored. The playdates, in the end, backfired and took a heavy toll on my self-confidence.
Over time, the play-dates faded away. Which was a relief. A relief that turned to horror when my parents came up with the idea to begin putting me on sports teams. “If he can’t make friends…we’ll put him on a team, where he can learn to work with others!”
Me…averse to lights…not a lot of hand/eye coordination…nervous, awkward. On a sports team. Basketball first. When that went south, baseball. When that went south, martial arts. And so on. The sports scene was definitely not a great place for someone like me.
Another solution specifically aimed at providing me with friends. Another solution that created all new forms of misery.
The lesson, to me, is that we can’t always help people by giving them what they want. As a kid, I wanted what other kids had: social connections, friends, the ability to play. But simply being handed opportunities was not enough. It often made things worse.
Rather, we help people by giving them what they need. And what I needed was to be in an environment where my differences could be identified as differences. I needed the people around me to have an interpretive framework that would have allowed them to see what was happening. Asperger’s Syndrome did not exist as a diagnosis when I was young. This created one difficulty. Specificity, however, is not necessarily the key here. Much more important is the ability to change preconceptions…to adapt…to take in information that deviates from our expectations.
With a flexibility like that, you may not know what to do…who does, really? We’re all still trying to figure that out. But you can more easily identify what not to do, and in many cases, that’s huge. Learning what not to do…patiently, through trial and error…can create a little breathing room for those little hearts out there that need the space to just be. It’s true that for kids with social deficits “just being” can at times mean a lot of awkwardness and uncertainty. But it can also be a comfortable plateau that provides a measure of stability and peace.
I know that with the right approach- involving an understanding of my social and sensory issues- monitored playdates could have been a success. I also know that a playdate going wrong often left me with a strong need for some downtime, even though I wanted friends. It was a tension with no clear solution.
But an intentional lack of solution…knowing what not to do: I think that would have been nice.