My son started middle school earlier this month and there have been lots of changes since elementary school — changing classes, having a locker and a whole new social structure. Gone are the days when boys and girls ate lunch or hung out at recess together. Also apparently gone — having moms set up play dates although we can’t call them play dates anymore – it’s called hanging out.
This is tough enough for normal tweens — my daughter is in fifth grade and starting middle school too and going through her own social growing pains (our school system made a change this year moving fifth grade to middle school along with the sixth graders). For a boy like Michael who is on the autism spectrum, the challenge is immense. He has a hard time remembering names so he doesn’t know the boys’ names who sit by him in different classes, which can make forging friendships tough. He also had good friendships with several girls, eating next to them and playing games at recess (or just talking about Minecraft or Pokemon). Now the girls, for the most part, just hang out with other girls. Michael still has one good friend from elementary school (he’s also on the spectrum) and they eat together and talk video games at recess. Don’t get me wrong – I’m grateful for that but I wish he had more than one option.
I’ve tried multiple things to help Michael make and maintain new friends. He’s clumsy and doesn’t like sports so that limits some options. For example, he’s in Boy Scouts with a few others from school and while the others talk to him there a little bit, it hasn’t translated into outside activities. I also just signed him up for a robotics club and hope that may lead to friendships. We will see.
Michael wants to have friends. As one of the social workers who was part of his IEP (Individual Education Plan) team noted, he’s often standing near larger groups of kids, trying to find a way to fit in or be a part of the experience. He’s just not sure how to join in. That’s one of the things he works on in therapy – how to start conversations, sustain them, etc. — but it’s a long road and his interests don’t always match up with those of other boys.
And the tweens are now more in control of their playdates or who they hang out with. When he was younger, I invited lots of Michael’s classmates over and often the visit was returned. Not anymore. Now, the tweens are busier and seem to set up on their own who they want to hang out with and sadly Michael doesn’t cross many minds. In the past year, he has had just a handful of invites to other kids’ houses – and he normally goes to the boy’s house who he hangs out with at recess.
It’s so hard to see your child struggle socially; I don’t want him to become isolated — I think that’s a fear most parents of special needs children have. This is just another of those questions that doesn’t have an easy answer.
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