When we first set eyes on our tiny little bundles, boy or girl, we have visions of great athletes, scientists and presidential aspirations. The reality is, our children become who they become. We parents can only do so much to shape our children but ultimately, they becomes their own unique selves.
My youngest daughter started middle school this year. Of course I had the same concerns that every parent has as their child enters a new stage in life. I worried about her classes, her locker, her friends…a laundry list of worries I cannot possibly list in less than a million words. My daughter is also autistic so in addition to those worries, a whole new list of worries rears its ugly head at the beginning of each and every school year.
The Worry of Extracurricular Activities
This school year I found a new worry I spent pondering every minute of the day. What should I do about her extracurricular activities? Should she join an activity that involves, at least on some level, social interaction?
My daughter has participated in a few activities outside of school, one being a brief try at gymnastics, but she has never participated in any after-school activities. Sure there have been several opportunities, but I have never required her to join anything she did not want to join. Therefore, she has never joined anything.
Many of us on the spectrum do not like to interact socially with groups of people. This pertains to group sports and clubs in particular. Sports are competitive which can lead to frustration. Clubs require talking and being social. These kinds of activities can cause extreme distress and anxiety for those of us on the spectrum. So, what’s a parent to do?
I have honestly stressed and worried about this for years. In elementary school it was easy to put outside activities on the back burner. There were very few school-related activities offered at her school. As far as participation other activities such as soccer or Girl Scouts, I always used her autism as an excuse. I assured myself that I was protecting my daughter from unnecessary social anxiety. Now, I see that this was not the best path to choose.
I sheltered her too much by avoiding her participation in childhood activities. Hindsight is always 20/20. She needs to participate in social activities because she will grow up and live in a socialized world. She may always be the “foreigner” but I shouldn’t stop her from partaking in and enjoying after-school activities. Sometimes I just want to spare my children the potential heartache and some of the bad experiences I had as a child on the spectrum.
Stop Sheltering, Start Encouraging
I decided that this is the year that my baby (she’s 11) should participate in extracurricular activities. I want her to experience what it is like to be around her same age peers outside of a classroom. I want her to be as social as she is capable of and comfortable with.
I also realized that her peers need to see her outside of the classroom. It is easy to accept and embrace autism in a structured setting, but what about an unstructured environment? What about a chaotic environment with other junior high students?
If we autistics truly want acceptance, we need to be involved in all aspects of life. We cannot be afraid of social interaction. We cannot be afraid of things that might challenge every fiber of our being. I want to encourage my daughter to push her boundaries and reach for the highest apple on the tree. By holding her back from social activities, I am only making her feel less acceptable to her typical peers.
I asked my daughter to choose an after-school activity. She had a mini meltdown when I first presented this idea to her. That’s okay. It’s part of dealing with something new. After she calmed down, we decided together that drama would be a great club to try. She doesn’t want to act but there is great opportunity to be a part of the backstage crew. From previous experience, I knew theater kids tend to be a welcoming group. She’s attending now and we’ll see how things work out.
Spreading Wings and Experiencing Life
I still worry that she will not have any friends or that she will experience a sensory meltdown when too many people and things go on around her at drama club. I still want to protect her from mean comments and rude stares. But I also want her to spread her wings and experience life. So I will stop over-thinking and over-mothering. She is capable of great things! I will not let anything including autism—her’s and mine—hold her back.