My daughter has always enjoyed being around other people. I remember telling my mom when she was a baby that her happiest days were the days that we went out to do things with other people and her hardest days were the days that we stayed home alone. This "social intent" is an argument that some school staff have used to discount her autism diagnosis. However, her drive to be with others is not matched by good interaction skills. In fact at times her social skills regress to the level of her almost three-year-old siblings, though she is four years older.
A couple of years ago we visited a local playground. At that time my daughter needed so much support and supervision that I would only go to this playground because it is small, fenced and was entirely age-appropriate for the twins who were toddlers at this point. I didn't have to worry as much that one of them would wander off or try something beyond their skill level while I was busy navigating the world with their sister. On this particular day there was another little girl there approximately the same age as my daughter. They were both playing on the slide, but my daughter would sit at the top of the slide refusing to go down, or sit at the bottom preventing the other little girl from sliding. I coached her through each bumpy interaction, but I was starting to get concerned that we would need to cut our visit short to avoid an ugly confrontation. Somehow we all ended up on the bouncy "teeter-totter". This is not the old-fashioned teeter-totter that leaves one child suspended 4 feet in the air, but a "bouncy" ride for two to six children with bench-like seats on either end. My daughter was saying that she didn't want the other little girl to ride with us and I was encouraging her to share. I started to say something to the other little girl and realized that I didn't know her name, so I asked her for her name. She responded and asked, "What's her name?" referring to my daughter. I prompted my daughter to respond and she did. It was as if a light switch went on. Quite suddenly my daughter was willing to share the bouncy ride and the rest of our time at the park the two girls played together well, though of course I maintained my vigil. Later in similar situations I always tried to make sure that names were exchanged early to help avoid that particular stumbling block.
I'm remembering this story because of a dramatically different scenario that took place today. We visited a park that we have only been to a few times. It is the polar opposite of the safe little tot playground described above. It is large, open, and has equipment appropriate for a wide age range. In this setting I triangulate, basically keeping all three children in eye-shot, but staying closest to the one who seems most likely to need my assistance or supervision. Increasingly this is my son who pushes the envelope of his climbing skills to the edge of my intense anxiety zone. We started off easily enough with my oldest daughter happily swinging and not apt to run into any social problems...I think this may be one reason she likes swinging so much, besides the whole sensory thing. Several minutes later she told me she wanted to try the "zip line" - which is just a handle that hangs on a cable and slides back and forth when the child swings their legs. One can zip from one end to the other in one swing because it is the length of most monkey bars. I told her to go ahead and reminded her of some positive rules. She still hesitated. I finally realized there was another child on the zip line so I prompted my daughter to ask for a turn, and the other child very kindly relinquished and left the scene. Some time later I checked-in to tell her it was almost time to go and she was still playing on her own on the zip-line. Less than ten minutes later I came back with her siblings in tow and asked her to finish up when I noticed another little girl nearby. I asked if they were sharing and sure enough they each took a turn zipping back and forth. My daughter and this other little girl ran off to tell the other girl's parents something, then came back and played with the zip line a few more times. Just before we took our leave the other little girl asked my daughter's name, and she responded, and I flashed back about two years. I was sad that we needed to leave at this point. Somehow these girls had formed a little friendship over the zip-line even before having that critical data of each others' names. Unsupported, unprompted, unsupervised. I'll mark that as progress and remember it fondly next time we hit a social snag.
It is also a good reminder to me because unlike my daughter I'm pretty much an introvert. If left alone with a good book, my computer, and adequate food for the day, I can quite happily pass the time on my own. In fact that sounds like a slice of heaven at the moment. I can see in these brief interactions the value of even very short term friendship. Each person we meet is an opportunity to enjoy our experiences at a whole new level of pleasure. It is worth the effort to overcome the barriers that we put around ourselves and to learn to connect with those around us, even if we don't know their name. I find myself gaining new courage to approach people with simple small talk or comments about common ground. It is widening my experience of the world around me.