FatherSon Ventures

Building a Relationship through Adventure

McDonald’s Play Place

Written By: Scot Butwell - Jun• 27•12

D and I set out of the house. He is four and a half, and we like to visit local parks and indoor playgrounds, among other places. Our motto is: “Leave the house, take pictures, don’t go too far.”

My wife L has set an “unofficial” five-mile radius from our home for our father-son adventures. East. West. South. North. Thus, the “don’t go too far” part of our motto.

I know. Don’t ask.

All right.

L believes I am careless (I once left the front door unlocked). I think she is a Control Freak. She tells me how I should vacuum the living room to avoid leaving footprints.

That’s all you need to know about us for now: we’re dysfunctional.

Today, D and I are going to a new park. It’s sunny outside as my blue Ford Escort reaches the first stop sign, ready to make a right-hand turn, when D says from the back seat, “Dad, I want to go to McDonald’s.”

Sure, McDonald’s! What he really means is McDonald’s Play Place. Land of tunnels. Climbing and slides. High-pitched squeals and laughter. Germs and instant friendship. Every kid’s utopia. Except, when we arrive this Saturday morning, the place is void of screaming and squealing kids.

“Where are all the kids?” D asks. “There are no kids.”

“It’s nine o’ clock. Kids will be here soon.”

D disappears into a tunnel, and when he reappears down a slide, two boys burst through the doors. He follows them into the play structure, and I enjoy the rarest of parent commodities: Rest! Aside from spending time with my son, this chance to rest is one of the reasons I like coming to McDonald’s.

D is an only child. He was diagnosed with “autistic-like” symptoms at age three, so we come to McDonald’s to have fun, but also to develop his social skills, thanks to the replenishable supply of kids.

Most of the time, you would not notice his “autistic-like” symptoms. He has a few quirky behaviors. What kid doesn’t? But none distinguish him as much different than other kids.


Our trips to McDonald’s, I suppose, are my response to his autism diagnosis. I crawl through the tunnels with D, a Gulliver among the pint-sized Lilliputians, determined to develop a relationship with my son.

This makes our visits more of a joint activity, but I also join him because he rarely plays with other kids. He is entertained by their antics, yet often misses their overtures to play.

Lately, though, he has begun to sustain interaction with other kids which enables me to stay on the sidelines. This is what I observe today as I chat with a soccer mom and sip my coffee:

D is chasing two older girls, ten or eleven years old. He pursues them through the tunnels like a dog tracking a scent. After coming down a slide, I hear one girl say to herself, “I am sweating.” And then to D, “Can you please stop chasing us?”

A boy with Down Syndrome cocks his index finger at D, and he grabs his chest and falls down. This is a play action I’ve never seen D do before. It is a normal gesture, but supposedly not for a kid on the autism spectrum.

A few minutes later, D comes down a slide in a train of four kids, all laughing and smiling. I smile. On the outside and the inside. This might seem like an ordinary scene, but after all our visits to McDonald’s, I know it is something more: D is learning to find joy in being with other kids.

I’ve worried when he showed little interest in other kids at the park, and his mom and I have heard D repeat words and phrases said to him (known as echolalia) instead of engaging in typical communication.

D has complied with the demands of his four ABA therapists (Pat, Sean, Maria, and Jasmine) in our home for twenty hours a week, which has often seemed repetitive and, at times, more focused on collecting “insurance” data than developing his social ability.

L demanded I read the books on autism she bought when she suspected he may be on the spectrum. I didn’t read the books right away, and L would yell at me after she put D to bed.

She thought I was in denial. I thought I was taking a calm approach to the whole situation, but, maybe, I was in denial. I still could have done without her yelling after I had worked all day.

D’s main symptoms were his tendency to spin circles and walk on his tippy toes, and he also liked to watch the kitchen ceiling fan spin around– none of which seemed too unusual to me.

Yet, none of this matters right now.

I am just happy seeing the joy D has found with other kids, and I say a prayer of gratitude for McDonald’s creating this haven of friendship.

No one else may know the significance of this moment, of D being caught in the ebb and flow of play with other kids, but I recognize he has made a giant leap forward in his development.

Every child is different, a mother once told me during a visit to McDonald’s, whose ten-year-old son didn’t start talking until he was five. “You can’t push a button and speed it up,” she said. “You just have to be patient.”

“Parents want their kid to be just like every other child,” I remember her telling me. “We all want to rush things, but a kid can only be what and where they’re at developmentally.”

What did Neil Armstrong say when he stepped foot on the moon? “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.” That’s what this moment feels like to me: a giant leap forward after hundreds of smaller steps.

And D realized it too. That was obvious from his joyous smile as he remained in a stream of continuous interaction with the seven or eight other kids who shared this time and space with him at McDonald’s Play Place.


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