What if your son comes home from school wanting to invite a new friend with autism over for a play date? Perhaps there is a new little girl with Asperger’s in your daughter’s class who could use a friend? For parents of non-autistic children, the idea of having a child on the autism spectrum over for a play date can be a little scary. But it doesn’t have to be! Cara Kosinski, long time pediatric occupational therapist, speaker, author of The Pocket Occupational Therapist Book Series, and mom to two boys with autism, has ten insightful tips for parents about what they can do to create a great playdate among children of all abilities.
(Alicia’s note: I know a list of how to host a playdate may seem a little extreme and this might seem like a lot to do to have a kid over for an hour but don’t let that scare you. Giving your child opportunities to interact with children of different abilities is a great way to raise a compassionate child and enables them to see the similarities, not differences, in their classmates. As a parent of a child with Autism, I can tell you that even if your playdate isn’t perfect, the fact that you cared enough to try means so much!)
Here are Cara’s tips:
Practice playing. It may be hard to believe, but the act of playing doesn’t come naturally to some kids. For example, children with autism often have difficulty with taking turns, having conversation, and interpreting nonverbal gestures. Practicing and explaining this to your child may help him to feel more comfortable. Together, discuss strategies that can be used to help facilitate play. What is a facial expression? Make different faces and ask your child to guess your emotion.
How do I find children with common interests? Teachers are amazingly insightful and may provide wonderful help to identify the children who tend to play together and enjoy similar interests. Volunteer in your child’s classroom to see who your child is interested in playing with. Additionally, birthday parties are great opportunities to observe those children who may be a good match for a playdate. Clubs and activities allow children with similar interests to enjoy each other’s company. My son showed an early interest in chess. I often arrived early to pick him up from chess club and to determine who showed interest in my son. The same is true for Lego club, music classes, art, or sports.
Remember that parents of children with special needs are used to answering questions about their children and are often quite comfortable discussing ways to help create successful social interactions. Also, be mindful that many families’ schedules are busy but a child with special needs may have additional appointments for therapy, medical, and developmental concerns. Be flexible in scheduling and do not be offended if the playdate needs to be re-scheduled.
Shared interests can make a playdate successful. Identify what the children have in common. Build activities upon mutual interests. So, set up Legos and build Angry Birds or Minecraft structures. If the children like the same movie, set up puzzles, art, baking, or sensory play based on the movie. Consider meeting at a location such as a park or museum. Siblings should not be a part of the playdate to allow for targeted friendship building between the two participants.
Make a plan and then review it with both children who are participating. At the beginning explain what the playdate will look like: First, we will work on a puzzle, and then a snack, etc…. Many children who have special needs benefit from a visual schedule and knowing exactly what is coming up next. ALL of us enjoy predictability and feel more confident with a specific plan in place. However, be flexible if any difficulties or disagreements arise.
Consider food allergies and sensitivities. When planning a snack contact the other child’s parent to determine which foods are safe for both children. It can be very meaningful for the other parent and is a critical step to avoiding potential life-threatening reactions to foods. Do not be offended if the children do not eat what is set out for snack. The kids may just be too excited to eat!
Be mindful of any physical limitations. For example, many children with sensory issues do not prefer to get messy, dirty or wet but they can be super at doing other things such as building or creating. It’s always a sensitive topic to talk about someone’s weaknesses, instead ask, “What is Billy great at doing?”
Provide adult supervision and support throughout the playdate. Since children of all abilities have different personalities, disagreements may arise. Consider ways to resolve conflicts such as asking both kids to take five deep breaths or closing their eyes and counting to ten. Make sure to ask the other parent which strategies are used when their child becomes stressed or upset. Preparation is a key ingredient in successful interaction when facilitating a playdate.
Begin with short playdates of an hour. Keep the first playtimes shorter until the children become more comfortable with each other. Consider having more short yet frequent play times with the same friend since relationships can take time to build. It’s important to end on a good note. So, if the children are in any type of conflict, help to facilitate a peaceful ending.
There is NO such thing as a perfect playdate! Do not put unnecessary pressure on yourself. Both typically developing kids and children with special needs are learning while practicing play and social skills. When learning a skill we all make mistakes. Our children benefit from every social interaction opportunity. Give yourself a pat on the back and enjoy watching new friendships bloom and develop.
What would you add to the list?