three’s a crowd


See, See my playmate

Come out and play with me

And bring your dollies three

Climb up my apple tree

Holler down my rain barrel

Slide down my cellar door

And we’ll be jolly friends

For ever more.

~ Phillip Wingate


At every play date I notice our uninvited guest. It doesn’t ask if it’s OK to join us; it just shows up. It’s awkward and it’s messy and it leaves its mark on everything we do. And as much as I like to think of myself as a gracious host, once in a while I’d really like it to get the hell out of my house.


Brooke was still in her pajamas. She ran to the front door and rapped on the window. Knock knock knock. She looked through the glass expectantly.

“Is Annie* here yet?” she asked.

I looked at my watch. It was 8:30 a.m.

“Not yet, sweetheart. Annie will be here at eleven o’clock. We still have two and a half hours before she gets here.”

She turned away from the window and looked around the entryway as though searching for something she’d just put down and couldn’t find. She turned back to the window. “Is it two and a half hours now?”

Brooke asked for a play date with Annie nearly three weeks ago. Luau had reached out to Annie’s mom right away, but alas, even the best laid plans don’t always work as we hope they will. Our first date had to be cancelled when poor Annie was sick with the flu. The second fell to the wayside when we realized we’d booked it on the same day as a home consultation with Brooke’s behavioral therapist. Valid reasons didn’t make waiting any easier.

And so it was that every single day for the past three weeks, Brooke had asked for a play date with Annie. Every day she said, “I will have a play date with Annie.” Every day she said, “I like spending time with her.” And every day she said, “She will come to my house and we will make cookies with chocolate chips.”

Even after the twentieth time, the script hadn’t lost its charm. Brooke wanted a friend to come over. I swear I would have moved heaven and earth to find a way to make it happen.

So there we were on Sunday morning – chocolate chip cookie ingredients at the ready and one little girl ready to burst out of her skin.

Annie showed up raring to go. After exchanging pleasantries, her mom headed out to do some shopping. Annie was sweet and poised and happy to chat and bake. She talked a mile a minute, her speech marked by the typical first-grade lilt at the end of each sentence. She made conversation with me as we measured and poured. I did my best to rein Brooke in as she ran in circles around the kitchen, lighting just long enough to take her turn pouring sugar or flour into the bowl before resuming her laps. Annie seemed unfazed, telling me how she and her mom bake cookies too and how she can break the eggs herself and she’s really good about not getting the shells in and how her babysitter makes these really delicious ones with cinnamon in them and how her brothers really love them and they can eat a million of them at a time and oh, so we read this book in class the other day and it was about this long journey and how sometimes it’s really about the journey, not where you’re going and Ooooh, Brooke – it’s your turn to pour now.

She was delightful. And it was killing me.

I tried hard to bring the conversation back to Brooke. “Honey, why don’t you ask Annie if she has any pets.”

“Annie, do you have any pets?” she asked as she grabbed a handful of chips from the measuring cup.

“I do! We have a dog. She’s a girl. Her name is Lavender.” Brooke wandered off into the den. Annie didn’t seem to notice. “So it’s good that she’s a girl. Cause Lavender would be a pretty funny name for a boy dog, don’t you think? Oh, and she’s not really lavender, she’s kinda brown.”

I thought we’d lost Brooke completely, but she came back into the kitchen carrying Katie’s stuffed spaniel – the one we joke is our’ family dog’. She laid him down on the counter in front of Annie. it took me a minute to realize why.

“Brooke, honey, are you showing Albo to Annie?”

“Yeah. He’s our dog,” she said as she headed off again.

As the cookies baked, I sent the girls up to Brooke’s room to play. I wasn’t sure what the hell to do with myself. I was trying desperately to heed Brooke’s aide’s advice. She had very gently told me to just let them go. “They play together at school,” she’d said. “Just let them run around. They’ll be fine.”

For better or worse, I’ve grown accustomed to facilitating Brooke’s play dates to within an inch of their lives. The last one we had, I may as well have bought the kid a pony to make sure she was having fun. I’d set up a cupcake bar. I’d put out twenty kinds of toppings to decorate with. There was sugar in every color of the rainbow. There were marshmallows and chocolate chips and sprinkles and crystal stars. They’d listened to music and played with play-doh and finally eaten not one, but two cupcakes each.

But I was trying. I hung down in the kitchen and busied myself cleaning up.

When I made my way upstairs to ask if they were ready for lunch, I found Brooke’s door closed. I knocked and opened it. Brooke had pulled nearly all of her dress-up clothes from the closet and spread them across the floor. She was dressed as a very pink princess. Annie was lounging on Brooke’s reading chair looking bored. I asked Brooke if she had asked Annie if she wanted to dress up too.

“Annie, do you wanna dress up too?” she asked.

“No thanks,” Annie said.

I felt like I’d let her down. I looked around the room for something to suggest. Brooke found a game that she wanted to play. Annie seemed marginally interested. I did my best to explain the rules to Annie and then made myself scarce again. I headed back to the kitchen to prepare lunch.

Over lunch, Annie chatted and Brooke ate. Annie must have mentioned her ‘best friend’ at least forty-six times. OK, so it was only four times, but somehow it stung every time. Brooke talks about Annie ALL. THE. TIME. She adores her. She seems to feel like she’s connected with her. So forty-six times I found myself wanting to say, “Hey, kid. We get it. You have a best friend. Mazel Tov, but let’s move on now, huh?” I didn’t.

After lunch, I brought the girls outside to play. And they did. At opposite ends of the swing set. Again, I tried to gently prompt. I felt like Big Foot trying to sneak into a tea party, but I felt like I had to do something.

“Hey, Brooke,” I began. “How about showing Annie how you do Jack and Jill?”

It’s one of her favorites. She climbs the steps of the play set with a bucket, comes down the slide and tumbles to the ground while singing Jack and Jill. It’s always been a hit with guests.

“Annie, you would be Jill and I’ll be Jack,” she said as she ran off with the bucket. She offered no further explanation, so Annie stayed put.

“Honey, can you ask her if she’d like to come with you?” I said.

“Hey, Jill, do you wanna come with me?” she yelled behind her.

Annie made a half-hearted attempt to follow along.

“Hey, Annie,” Brooke said at the bottom of the slide. “Do you want to do Jack and the Beanstalk now?”

“Sure,” Annie said to Brooke’s back as she ran off.

Brooke ran into the brush along the side of our yard, working her way through the tangle of bushes and branches toward her favorite tree. Once again, Annie stayed put.

I was getting tired. And sad. And frustrated.

Not a single interaction is easy. Not one. Not one comes naturally or flows freely. Every single overture takes thought and explanation and prompting. I looked over at Brooke. I could barely see her. She was hidden in a tangle of branches and leaves. I suggested that she ask Annie to join her and that she explain to her that the tree was in fact the beanstalk.

Annie pushed her way through the brush to join Brooke. I could see that she was uncomfortable. Anyone but the most sensory seeking little being would be. Jack and the beanstalk never had a chance to materialize.

When Annie’s babysitter came to pick her up, I was relieved. I hoped she’d had a good time. I hoped she’d want to come back. Honestly, I really wasn’t sure. But I hoped.

I closed the door as she left. Brooke said, “I had a play date with Annie. I like spending time with her.”

And my heart broke just a little.

34 thoughts on “three’s a crowd

  1. Aw, honey, I’m sorry. Does it help to see that she HAD a playdate? I mean, that she’s even interested is big, right? Time and coaching? Maybe some social stories? What the heck do I know…we’re still so far from even this that it’s all hypothetical.

    Sending love and hugs. xo

    • oh, honey .. it does, i swear. and i know – i promise i KNOW – how much progress she’s made and how far we are from where she was even a short time ago.

      she has wonderful, consistent social pragmatics instruction and that’s no doubt a huge part of what’s gotten her as far as she is now .. and i don’t take a single morsel of that progress for granted.

      but sometimes it just hurts. to know that she wants to connect – to know how important it was to her to have this little girl come to the house – and then to watch her struggle .. well, no matter how hard i try to rationalize it, it’s just hard.

  2. Your posts always touch my heart. Thank you for so eloquently expressing what life with a child with autism is like. I’ve sent your link to several friends who have neurotypical kiddos and your posts have been really helpful in increasing their understanding of life with autism. Thank you!

  3. The think is, it sounds as if annie struggled and you struggled, but Brooke had a great time just having her friend around. If from Brookes point of view it was a success then maybe that is worth celebrating now and the worrying about how to help her with future play dates can come later. The big point is (it seems to me) is that BROOKE thought it was a success and wasn’t left frustrated or miserable.

  4. I’m sorry that was so hurtful. It was heartbreaking to read. Brooke has made so much progress but there are bound to be backward steps.

    I love you.

  5. I get it. I do. I feel like I’m your sidekick singing “Nobody Knows…”

    Nothing to say but it feels like crap.

    It’ll get better.

    But it feels like crap.


  6. Brooke is a lucky, lucky girl to have a momma who cares so much. I’m sorry that it was hard and frustrating for you – and Annie – but overjoyed to see Brooke’s progress. While it may be hard for other kids to get into her swing of things, it sounds as though she had a blast…and, really, what more could you ask for?

  7. You must be very strong to move heaven and earth the way you do, and as often as you do 😉 you are doing everything you possibly can to pour yourself into what matters to your kids to be able to build up their confidence and build on their interests and add meaning to it all…putting pieces together constantly, or at least trying – ALL.THE.TIME.

    YOU jess, are delightful. And like Anna said, Brooke had a great time. Good job.

  8. Oh honey- I am so sorry… perhaps it might help to remember that Katie has probably had play dates where the other child was bored as well… or that things didn’t go well, either. You know the REASON that this one did not, but even typical kids get bored at each other’s houses. I’ve learned that kids are strangely resilient. If Annie plays with Brooke at school, chances are she still will… I taught elementary school for years and kids (girls especially) will act bored with each other, say terrible, mean things about each other, and then come back for more. It’s weird…

    But the sting is still there. And the unwanted playmate of autism just won’t leave.

  9. I know the feeling well and start to resent those adorable little typical friends, but here’s the thing….Brooke had fun, it is NOT your responsibility to entertain the whole village.

    Also, consider playdates with other special-needs kids. I can’t even begin to tell you how the kids ‘connect’ silently and giggle wildly at things we don’t understand. I just about burst with happiness when I watch it happen. And the Mommy-time chatting with the other Mom is good for my soul too!

    • Oh, we do have playdates with ‘like-minded’ kids as well and yes, there are lots of benefits to them!

      The thing that was so different and special about this playdate is that it wasn’t driven by us – this was Brooke independently asking to spend time with someone, which is a whole new concept.

      As for my worry about Annie having fun -it’s because I know how much Brooke likes her and how much she’ll look forward to having her over again. For that reason, I felt like there was a stake in her enjoying her time here so that she’d want to come back.

  10. I know, I even became a troop-mom (major time commitment!) for the same reason, fueled by my daughter showing an interest. It always hurts to watch, but she has friends and Brooke will have many. It’s beautiful to see how she’s trying, especially the part where she brought out the dog—magnificient!

  11. I have facilitated that play date. They are a lot of work so we haven’t done too many.

    The very worst part of my day is pick up time when I watch all the other kids going off to play dates arm in arm and my kids and I come home. Just us.

    I know our kids have to learn to live in “the real world.” But I remember the day you emailed me about Brooke telling you she had “hugged somebody” at school and that somebody was my daughter who had just started in her class. In her regular preschool, L had a hard time making friend, and had only bonded with one other kid, a boy. But with her and Brooke it was like falling in love.

    But I won’t give up. We will invite the girl she really likes over for another play date. Beforehand L and I will make a visual schedule and choose an activity and review–for the millionth time–that you have to do the what guest wants to do too.

    And maybe the next play date after that our girls can get together and play Jack and Jill on the slide and dress up as Dora and Boots.

  12. Sigh. My heart pounded as I read your words because we’ve had the exact same experiences. We in fact gave up playdates with classmates for a few years (grades 1 through 3 pretty much), which alleviated the stress for me but also left me feeling horrendously guilty that I was depriving my E of social experiences because I was just too thin-skinned.

    And don’t get me started on what Erika said: “The very worst part of my day is pick up time when I watch all the other kids going off to play dates arm in arm and my kids and I come home. Just us.” I used to come home from the playground after school and just cry at the injustice of it all.

    But now, in fourth grade, things have changed. Perhaps it’s the years of social skills groups finally sinking in…but E’s not only had a few kids over but been invited to a few playdates, including one very successful sleepover. And while I’m still wracked with the same fears and the interactions aren’t always “typical,” it’s been miraculous to see how far he’s come.

    Brooke will continue to make her way, too, with perhaps the same agonizingly cautious fashion as E, but that’s OK. It takes time to figure it all out. And the kids she befriends will have no idea how lucky they are to have her. And you will appreciate it all the more.

    • audra – thank you for this:

      And the kids she befriends will have no idea how lucky they are to have her.

      just thank you.

  13. We’ve had that playdate. Many times. And it’s never easy. But it does get better. Son has a REAL FRIEND this year — who likes him for him, and not because we have a Wii or because my wife always bakes cookies for playdates. Hang in there and keep trying.

  14. ((hugs)) I know the feeling all too well, but it will get better. It does sound like Brooke had a fantastic time and in the end that is all that really matters.

  15. Sucks. Big time. He doesn’t even stand still and notice the other kids. Take that back. He notices out of the side of his eyes (he must) and he avoids them. And every single interaction is prompted. Doesn’t matter how much progress we’ve made. Doesn’t matter how much higher functioning our child is. It still hurts. ((hugs))

  16. Well, Brooke had fun, and Annie didn’t complain, and no one ended up in tears or screaming. I don’t know, in my book that’s a success 🙂 Of course, expectations are maybe different for boys, so I don’t have my hopes set as high. We are still seeing mainly parallel play even as we close in on 13, although on the computer games it’s not quite as obvious. My son has one very good friend who I think should be put up for sainthood, he’s so patient with him – unfortunately he lives clear on the other side of town and they aren’t in the same school anymore, so we only see him once every couple of months – but at least it’s someone. And he’s even gotten to the point after almost two years that they can sort of have a phone conversation. 🙂

    Hang in there, I know it’s hard… but you ARE an awesome mom, and both your kids (and your community) are very very lucky to have you.

  17. Oh, I so get this. What Drama said. Exactly. And here’s a little encouragement from down the road a bit – Brooke will find the kids who will accept her for who and how she is, and they will find her. Their interactions will still be different than Katie’s and her friends’, but they will still happen. And although it still hurts to notice the differences, you will notice something else: Brooke will enhance the lives of those kids who give her a chance and spend time with her. How do I know this? Because the parents of the kids who hang with Nigel tell me. As parents, it still hurts to see the differences. But we just have to keep telling ourselves that it’s okay. They are being their wonderful selves, and they’re still interacting differently, but it’s all right. Sending hugs.

  18. I feel for you! Ive tried to back off as well and just let him do his own thing. Its so hard though, I can see how desperate he is to “play” with other kids and other people but he just doesnt know how. It’s frustrating because you want to let them go but it hurts so much to watch them fail. Im trying not to think of those moments as failure, I remember just two years ago when he wouldnt even acknowledge there being another person in the room.

    Baby steps.

    Infant steps.

    At least they are steps!

  19. Oh Jess, I can feel your pain. I had “those playdates” 3 times a week for years, and they were all painful. I don’t want to sound pollyanna-ish, but they do get better. I’ll never forget the first time I heard my daughter have an un-prompted 2 minute conversation with a peer. It was one of the proudest moments of my life! It was worth turning myself into Bozo the Clown, even when my heart was breaking. Hang in there, you’re doing great!

    Want a tip? For the last 10-20 minutes of the playdate, make it all about the other kid, whatever she likes to do. That way,she leaves on a very positive note, and wants to come back. That always helped me 🙂

  20. ach, difficult. it’s a step though…she wants a play date, seeks them out…then she’s up against the hard part, developing a sense of the other person, their play-needs. but the fact that she’s up to that point, it’s wonderful, so nice to hear her expressing friend-needs, playtime wants. she’ll continue to be around kids, grow her sense of them, work them into connections. to an extent…and other kids, they’ll continue to be around her, learn her rhythms, adjust to her. at some point, she and some friends will be meeting half way. and having fun.

  21. Wow, great post! That’s really moving and enlightening.

    I’d like to learn how to play Jack and Jill myself sometime 🙂

    When you describe chlidren talking next to each other but not talking with each other, it reminds me of Piaget’s studies of the language of children:

    Children speak in each others company without actually discussing the same subject. He calls it Dual or Collective Monologue. See page 6 in the link above for a brief definition and I can give my copy if you’re interested.

    Just speaking while another person is there serves an important purpose for children. What exactly, I’m not sure 🙂


    Greg S

  22. I want to play with her. Your daughter is so darling.
    But I know just how you feel.
    She is getting there in her own way.
    I send you cupcakes….

  23. Can’t add much to what others have so wisely said, but oh how I can relate to this. We haven’t done many playdates, bad mom that I am, because we have had this very experience with both my kids.

    You’re a great mom for trying, for doing all the right things with this …

  24. Sometimes it is hard for me to read posts around when Evan was that age…I feel like I failed so so much.

    You are a wonderful mom, with wonderful girls and I know it will al work out the way it is meant to be.

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