Q: I have a preschooler with lots of developmental delays who was recently diagnosed as being on the spectrum. He's a cheerful, friendly and fun little guy. I'm not sure how to support him in social interactions where I feel as if other kids are being exclusionary or rude toward him. I was never taught how to be assertive, and I want to do better by him.

It's complicated because of his language and other delays. It's usually in situations where the other child's parents are not close by. For example, a kindergarten-age neighbor kid told another neighbor kid that they shouldn't play with my son. Then he brought out a fun toy and said my son couldn't use it, but the other kid could. There is no history between them; the kid was being exclusionary for no reason. I hesitate to "parent" another person's child, but I think that's rude and unkind behavior. Can you give me any tips about how to parent my child in situations like this or what, if anything, I should say to the other child?

A: Thank you for writing in. It can be acutely painful to watch our children be rebuffed, ignored or treated unkindly by other children. And you’re right: Parenting other children is not a worthwhile path forward, because it’s a bit of a fool’s errand. There will always be people who will not try to understand or be compassionate toward your son, so your efforts are better spent skill-building with your son to prepare for this world.

I turned to my friend Jen Dryer, a parent coach and advocate for parents of neurodiverse children, and the first thing she noted is that unstructured peer-based play for an autistic child can be difficult. “Supporting an autistic child in peer-based social settings, especially when play is unstructured, as it would be at a playground, is often incredibly challenging,” Dryer says. “I like that you are thinking about how to prepare your child for potential challenges and confusing social situations ahead of time, to help alleviate the anxiety and stress that peer-to-peer issues in unstructured and often unsupervised environments can create.”

We’re already seeing a path forward from Dryer’s comments: Your young son may not be able to participate in unstructured play at this age. Can you bring the children to your house and play with them? Yes. Can you sit outside and accompany the children as they play? Yes. And know this: Unstructured peer-based play doesn’t go well with all sorts of children, not just neurodiverse kids. Preschoolers and kindergartners, as a rule, are immature and don’t show consistent consideration for their playmates. Without adult supervision, playtime can quickly become a “Lord of the Flies”-like situation, with the strongest and bossiest child leading the pack. If many autistic children are socially behind their peers by a year or two (or more), then there is little chance for successful independent play with the neighbors, at least for now.

Once the neighbors are excluded, there isn’t much you can do to go back in time and change that, but you can move forward with a skill-building plan.

Dryer recommends beginning with a well-researched technique called “social narratives.” Social narratives are where you can “practice and teach specific ways to react when a friend does something you don’t like,” she says. “This can include some key phrases to use (ex., ‘I don’t like it when . . . ’ or ‘it’s still my turn; you can have it when I’m done,’ etc.), and some key actions to take (ex., walk away, find a grown-up, etc.).”

Narratives like this place your son as a character in his own story, and he can practice concrete ways to handle people and social situations. Although your son is still young, starting these social narratives will give him a much better chance at navigating the nuances of interpersonal relationships.

As for the children in your neighborhood, you can commit to supervising their play, and you can always advocate for your son in a way that isn’t punitive for the other children. (After all, they’re young, too.) “Setting some clear parameters ahead of time and explaining that everyone’s brains work a little differently, and some kids may want to play in different ways than you do, and that’s okay, can be very comforting,” Dryer says.

It’s absolutely appropriate to continue saying everyone’s brain is a little different, and this is how your son’s brain works. I would like to promise that this will get easier as he gets older (and there are many signs that the larger culture is moving toward accepting that people learn and move about the world in different ways), but the reality remains that children (and their parents) will not always behave kindly and inclusively.

Just as your son will work with social narratives to strengthen his interpersonal relationships, it would also behoove you to find a supportive group of parents who can cheer you on, offer ideas and give you the compassion that all parents of differently wired children deserve. Raising a neurodiverse child can become isolating; if you can, reach out to your neighbors to let them know who you and your son are, and that you would like to look out for all of the children in the neighborhood. “It takes a village,” right? Sometimes, a simple email or front-yard party can break the ice and help everyone see each other.

As researcher and author Brené Brown says: “It is hard to hate people close up.” So take the step to connect with your neighbors. Good luck.

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