Autism Social Skills for Parents
So much of our time and effort as autism parents is dedicated to helping our children make friends, keep friends, learn social skills; encouraging the importance of making eye contact and learning conversational icebreakers; learning social reciprocity and empathy; taking turns, sharing, appropriate conversation topics. I'm not sure about you, but I had never had the need to dissect the minutia and subtlety of communication in such depth before my autism parenting journey.
For me, every trip to the playground was fraught with worry and anxiety. Watching my child pace around the perimeter of the park showing zero interest or ability to engage other children. It is natural for parents to strike up a conversation with other parents in the playground or at the sandbox as their children play together. When I would meet other parents this traditional way, there was no motivation to connect, exchange contacts, or plan a meet up because my child wasn't playing with their child.
After the sandbox years, once school started, it was the same routine. She walked the playground alone as I watched on while other parents all bustled to organize play-dates, sleepovers and birthday invites.
Parenting changes your social structure and often the majority of your daily interactions are with other parents. Parents meet at school, during extracurricular teams and activities. They meet when they are stuck seated watching their child's games or practices for hours alongside each other. Parents meet other parents and tend to bond because their kids play together. As an autism parent, this connection often eluded me.
I will not even get into how other parents look on judgmentally as your child doesn't "play nicely" or how they whisper that your parenting skills must be lacking because your child is aloof or "unsocial". I found my early years of autism parenting quite a lonely and isolating experience.
I cannot overstate the relief and validation I had felt when I finally met other autism parents. We were all in the same boat; we got each other! We did not judge each other for trying to normalize the constant idiosyncrasy that is autism parenting. Who else would understand why we had blackout curtains or why we couldn't have the phone ringer on...ever? There was an unspoken understanding of the loneliness that has crept into our lives and how our social skills may have suffered due to isolation. We understood each other's high strung pitch as we traded notes about the path we had been walking as of an advocate, caretaker, teacher, researcher and often only friend or social outlet for our kids.
As I reflect on this, it has dawned on me that autism parents need social skills help too!
Try to remember your own needs too. As parents of children with special needs, we get so caught up in the needs of our children that we often forget our own. Take breaks, call old friends or a coworker and talk about things unrelated to autism and parenting sometimes.
Do not let yourself fall too far out of practice. If you don't use it, you lose it. Social skills like any skill require time, energy, repetition and frequency. Look in your local community for autism parenting networks or your local Autism Speaks chapter. Many support programs for your kids will also offer simultaneous parent groups where you can forge meaningful connections. We all need other parents to sit on the benches with! Don't sit on the sidelines, trust me.