April, 2017 was a watershed moment for public television. Sesame Street, a show we all grew up watching, loving and learning from, introduced a new character: Julia. Like her friends, Elmo, Abby Cadabby and Big Bird, Julia is cute, funny and entertaining. Yet, in one specific way, she appears to be “different.” Julia is a child with autism.
Over the years, our community has truly answered the call to address the topic of children with special needs. We have incredible schools, camps, organizations, and synagogue youth departments that have all extended themselves to include children with special needs. As a parent of a child with special needs, I am a beneficiary of these institutions. Thus, I can provide first-hand testimony as to their incredible work. However, in one specific way, our community can do better. Our community must do better.
Let us now return to Sesame Street. One day, in April, 2017, Elmo and Abby are playing outside Hooper’s Store with Alan, the store owner. This time, they invite Julia to play with them. While they are all sitting around a table, utilizing their markers, paint-brushes and paper to make artwork, Big Bird approaches them and introduces himself to Julia. Julia does not immediately respond to Big Bird, confusing him. At first, Big Bird seems offended. Immediately, Elmo, Abby and Alan help explain autism to Big Bird. Julia, together with Elmo and Abby, then create a new game of tag, incorporating an element of bouncing, which Julia loves to do, as they play. Witnessing the amount of fun they were having, Big Bird expresses his interest and desire to play with them.
Alan then advises Big Bird as follows, “It doesn’t matter how they play, they’re just a bunch of friends having fun.” Big Bird tells Alan, “You know, I think I‘d like to be a friend of Julia, too.” What Sesame Street, Elmo, Abby, Big Bird, Alan and Julia have shown us is that a playdate with a child with special needs can be as much fun as, if not more than, a playdate between two “neurotypical” children.
Every Shabbat and Yom Tov, as I exit the Shul (Synagogue) after Dovenning (Prayers), I witness and hear parents arranging afternoon playdates for their children. But for so many kids, the playdates simply do not happen. For so many, they spend the afternoons with devoted siblings, selfless volunteers and parents. Those experiences are lovely. However, these children need more. The time has come for playdates for everyone.
Experts far and wide have long detailed the benefits of playdates for all children. Whether it is practicing critical social skills, confidence building, or encouraging the building of significant friendships, every child reaps the award of a playdate. Now imagine a playdate for a “neurotypical” child with a child with special needs. Think of the instant opportunity for every child to learn from someone who is “different.” Eventually, they all become adults. As such, our children can only profit through realizing earlier, rather than later, that while people enter your life from different experiences; we can all learn from each other.
Let be me clear, I love every minute I spend with our son. Indeed, I dream of the day when I can retire from my law practice, so I can spend more time with him. My goal of ensuring a playdate for everyone is simply to enhance each child’s time. Additionally, I must give a personal shout-out to our amazing daughters, who selflessly devote their time to our son. I have said many times, and I will say it again and again, a sibling of a child with special needs is a sacred thing! With all of that said, I propose the following six point plan to facilitate our community’s efforts of ensuring that every child has a playdate:
- Preparation: All parents should prepare for the playdate. Time should be taken, beforehand, so that children can first develop their play skills. As a parent of a child with special needs, I can practice with our son so he understands taking turns, communicating his thoughts, and listening to his friend. At the same time, a parent of a neurotypical child can be educated about how not every child listens nor responds the same way; and that is okay.
- Arrangements: Here, I ask our organizations to assist. We have incredible youth directors and organizational leaders, who possess a thorough knowledge of children with special needs. These directors and leaders also have experiences with parents and teens in administering programing for people with special needs. Together, we can reach out to those parents and teens, to inquire if they know of younger siblings, who might be able to have a playdate with a child with special needs. Perhaps, one can find a child who likes sports, Lego and trampolines just like a child with special needs does. One would be pleasantly surprised at how many interests we all have in common.
- Resources: Do not be afraid to ask a parent of child with special needs about their child. As a parent of such a child, I am always more than ready to talk about our son. In fact, I see every day how much social media posting parents display in this regard. Discuss the children first with their parents. One conversation can teach so much to all of us.
- Facilitators: Having a teen volunteer around during the first few playdates can also help. Often, during any playdate, there can be lulls in the activities. A volunteer would then assist in keeping all of the children on task and maintaining interest. Playdates are often about momentum. A silent moment can be awkward, and, in the case of a child with special needs, may automatically communicate a lack of desire to play with each other. The teen volunteer would intervene at those moments, to help the playdate maintain success.
- Take it Slow: The first playdate should last for a maximum of one-half hour. Children with special needs are more energetic at certain times, but more subdued at others. Very often, these fluctuations are a reaction to certain sensory stimuli. We can never perfectly predict how a child with special needs will act in a new social scenario. Over time, based upon the level of familiarity, the playdates can then be lengthened.
- Fail First, Fail Forward: My good friends who are charged with educating our teens taught me this concept, and I truly believe it applies in every respect to playdates. No playdate is perfect. There will be mistakes, but we can always learn from them. After the playdate, take a moment to reassess. Examine what worked and what went wrong. In the realm of playdates, as we learn and grow, I truly believe that each child will emerge as a winner.
In sum, being a child in today’s post–millennial world is difficult. It is a big ask for any child to make one play date with a child with special needs. But, I guarantee you that one playdate, just one, even for one half-hour; will change all of our worlds forever.
Please make one playdate for your child with a child with special needs.
Zevi Fischer is an attorney who practices in the area of real estate litigation. He was born and raised in