The Lake Gerar Tot Lot is the smallest of the three public playgrounds in Rehoboth Beach. It is nothing special. But I like it because it’s completely fenced-in and because it is almost an afterthought in a resort town that tries hard to get my children’s attention, with kite shop employees who stand outside blowing giant bubbles, a bookstore with free balloons and of course, Funland, the ringing, dinging boardwalk gallery of rides and games. I like the Lake Gerar playground because if I go before 8 a.m., it is usually empty, and I don’t have to worry if my autistic 3-year-old throws wood chips or if he wants everyone, including his baby brother, to stay off the swings so he can push the empty seats and race back and forth in front of them.
No one has better articulated my love-hate relationship with playgrounds than Yetta Myrick, a mother of an 11-year-old autistic boy and the executive director of DC Autism Parents. “The playground can be a nightmare for parents of children with autism because it is one of the places where we truly see the differences between our children and neurotypical children,” she told me.
On the playground, many autistic children prefer to play by themselves, uninterested in engaging with other children who are there. They can be easily overstimulated by noises that don’t bother other children. Some autistic children have meltdowns in the sandbox because it overloads their system. Others throw sand for stimulation. Or run into the other children because they aren’t paying attention. “And we cannot forget to mention the stares from other parents and their children because there is something wrong with our child,” Myrick said.
I want to love playgrounds. I want to be the kind of mother who doesn’t care what other people think. I have a beautiful, interesting child who loves Elmo, hugs, silly songs and wagon rides and can easily recite the alphabet in both English and Arabic. I also have a child who fusses a lot and yells if his world gets disordered, which it easily does. It doesn’t help that my little guy looks older than he actually is. People see a misbehaving 5-year-old with a temper instead of a frustrated autistic 3-year-old who is still unraveling both of the languages he speaks. For my kid on the spectrum, his disability is invisible, until it is not.
On a recent visit to his grandmother in Central Illinois, I took my son to a playground near her house. I spent the entire 20 minutes there chasing him, shouting for him to stay on the playground and finally threatening to leave if he kept dashing off. Twice, he ran down a small embankment toward a drainage ditch because he loves the sensation of free-falling down a hill. After the second time, I picked him up, strapped him crying into the wagon and left because I didn’t feel like I could keep him safe. Frankly, I also was frustrated. A playground is supposed to be a carefree place. Given the choice, I’d rather take both my kids to Target than to the playground. I know how crazy that sounds, but at least at the store, I can strap them in to keep them safe and hand the older one my smartphone to distract him. If he gets upset, nobody pays much attention. It’s Target. You almost expect to find at least one howling child per visit. Playgrounds, on the other hand, are supposed to be happy places, and although kids throw fits, and 3-year-olds act 3 whether they are on the spectrum or not, there’s something about a meltdown at the playground that seems to attract more attention.
And yet I know that playgrounds are important places for my son to learn how to play and to interact, which is not intuitive for him, as one of the directors at the camp he attended this summer at St. Joseph’s University in Philadelphia reminded me.
“Developing social interactions is something that most people take for granted as part of childhood,” said Lindsey DelCarlino, assistant director of programs for the Kinney Center for Autism Education and Support. “For those with a diagnosis of ASD, social interaction may be difficult and recognizing the importance of developing relationships and the ability to generalize that behavior is critically important to development.”
But, she added, “Knowing what situations work best for your child is the most important thing.”
For me, that is a playground with a fence.
My 3-year-old loves to run more than he likes to play on the equipment, and he is fast, really fast. I didn’t realize how few playgrounds had fences until I started looking for the ones that did. Without a fence, a playground is not accessible to many young autistic children, and it’s a shame more park planners don’t get that. If I had a call to arms in this journey that is parenting an autistic child, it would be this: Playgrounds need fences.
On our drive back to our home in Chicago the first week in August, I decided to stay near Akron, Ohio. I researched playgrounds first and found one in neighboring Fairlawn that was rated one of the best in north Ohio. Several Web sites described it as enclosed. Elated, I chose a hotel within a five-minute drive. But when we pulled into the parking lot at Griffith’s Park, I saw immediately that the playground was only partially fenced. My 3-year-old needed to get out of the car, and I had been talking it up, so we went anyway, but I had to wear his brother in a wrap and stand near the opening so he wouldn’t dash off, his little legs eager for a good sprint after more than six hours in the car. I was anxious the entire time, and we only stayed about a half hour before I scooped up my crying child who didn’t want to leave yet and carried him back to the car.
For some autistic children, the best playgrounds are ones with special equipment that suits their sensory needs, which many have. The Montgomery County Department of Parks is adding an egg-shaped cocoon at Fernwood Local Park in Bethesda that will provide a spot for overstimulated autistic children to take a break. However, the playground, like many, is not enclosed.
Kaneen Geiger, program director for the Autism Elementary/Middle Program at the Ivymount School in Rockville, said she often advises parents to go to a public school playground on the weekends because they are generally enclosed, particularly in an urban area.
She said it’s also good for parents of autistic children to go when it isn’t crowded to practice appropriate play like taking turns and sharing. Some autistic children, for example, may have a favorite swing or spot in the playground and get upset if someone else is in it, she said.
“They can practice taking turns with their child to get practice in the moment,” she said.
She said autistic kids who get good at practicing with adults may still have difficulty with other children, making it a good idea to bring a slightly older child along to help.
Parents also should have an exit plan. “I would make sure to go when you have a plan for how you can leave quickly when it becomes too difficult,” Geiger said. “Don’t have the first time being when you are bringing 10 kids. Just you and your child with autism … the first time so you can stop it as soon as possible when it all becomes too difficult. Maybe bring some of those comfort items like a favorite toy they can play with to take some breaks from kids so they can come back when they’re ready.”
She acknowledged that it can be challenging for parents to manage their own worries. “But I think also practicing when the playground is a little more quiet can help the parents see that it is going to be okay, that their child can learn to tolerate new things as long as we continue,” she said. “It is very scary situation.”
One morning at the Lake Gerar playground in Rehoboth, a woman with five children showed up shortly after we arrived. Although I willed them to keep walking when I saw them coming up the path, they all came into the playground.
Two of the children immediately got on the swings. My son watched them without saying anything and then started running in front of them, within inches of their feet. I called for him to be careful, but he insisted on running in front of the swings. I put his brother back in the car seat carrier so I’d have both arms free to intervene, and grabbed a peach from my bag in case I needed a bribe to lure him away.
I walked closer to watch and tried to explain to the woman why my little guy didn’t seem to care or notice that he could get clobbered by swinging feet. “He’s autistic,” I told her, hoping that would be enough.
“Oh!” she said. “I wondered.”
We both watched him for a few minutes. “He’s created his own obstacle course,” she said. “That’s really neat.”
I looked over at her in surprise and also grateful. We stayed that morning longer than usual. Nobody left in tears.
Jackie Spinner was a staff writer for The Washington Post for 14 years. She is now an assistant professor of journalism at Columbia College Chicago, a correspondent for Columbia Journalism Review and the mother of two boys.
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