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Tips For Successful Playdates For Children With Autism

Published on 05/27/2022
tips for successful playdates for children with autism

There is no doubt children on the autism spectrum are more likely to have social struggles, but that doesn’t mean playdates and friendships are impossible. In fact, parents, siblings, and family members are wise to keep an open heart and mind because putting too much emphasis on the social challenges associated with autism can become the proverbial self-fulfilling prophecy 

As Board Certified Behavior Analysts specializing in supporting children with autism and their families, we’ve seen first-hand how an informed and practical approach leads to successful playdates and friendships. Remember, whether they have ASD or not, many children struggle with social anxiety, stubbornness, a desire to hold on to what is theirs or take what belongs to others, etc., until they learn otherwise; your child is no different.

5 Ways To Facilitate Successful Playdates And Friendships With ASD

Here are five proven ways to facilitate positive playdate experiences that help your child develop high-quality friendships.

Identify whether or not your child is ready

Some children simply aren’t ready for the concentrated dose of playdate excitement yet. Sending them into a playdate with fingers crossed is not ideal. If it goes south, it can be a major setback. 

Some of the most common signs your child is ready to begin playdating are:

  • Some level of verbal communication skills. Nonverbal children with autism should hold off a bit longer until they’ve learned more skills OR unless they have another nonverbal peer to learn to play with.
  • Your child enjoys playing with certain games or toys that are age-appropriate and equally interesting to their peers.
  • Some level of interest in peers or a desire to have a playdate. If this desire comes more from you than from your child, and your child isn’t interested, we don’t recommend scheduling a playdate yet.
  • Your child plays well most of the time with siblings (has learned s/he must take turns, share toys, alternate honoring each others’ ideas, etc.).
  • S/he practice plays well with you as you’ve set up certain scenarios and instructed acceptable responses.

Keep in mind that just because your child isn’t ready for playdates when others are, that doesn’t mean s/he’ll never be ready.

Set reasonable expectations to get started

There isn’t a child on the planet who thrives if parents don’t have reasonable expectations or the ability to hold firm boundaries. Children need to know where they are supposed to be, what they’ll be doing, and for how long. If parents say one thing but any of these become another, difficulties arise. Children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) are typically more set in their routines and require order in their lives, making clarity around expectations even more poignant. 

Knowing your child’s interests, positive attributes, and limitations are key to setting the boundaries required for playdates, especially in the beginning and while developing new relationships. This may mean:

  • Playdates should be short at first and then extended as a reward for successful sessions. This may mean your first playdate is as short as 15 minutes long. That’s just fine. Next time you can try 30, and then 45, and so on. Small successes and wins lead to bigger successes and wins.
  • You’ll need to be close at hand until your child and their new friends/parents are familiar enough for you to begin alternating parental supervision.
  • Playdates need to be at your house or a familiar park/public setting.
  • They should occur during the typical “playtime” on your family’s schedule.
  • You should provide the snacks (or at least your child’s snacks) to keep things familiar until their friends’ parents understand what foods are okay and which ones cause problems.
  • Activities or toys may need to be agreed upon ahead of time (or the most precious or coveted toys may need to be put away so they aren’t an issue).
  • Think about creating a “Playdate Plan” with your child and then explain the plan to the other child and his/her parents. Then, the other child can make the plan next time (a good way to scaffold equality and take turns).

Choose the right first playmate

This relates back to one of the bullet points below #1, “Some level of interest in peers…” Ask your child who s/he wants to play with. Then ask why and what about that friend is compelling. Their desire to have a playdate or an interest in a specific person is a good first start. If they know why they’re attracted to that friend, you may glean insight into that child’s interests and favorite toys or games.

Either way, the ideal first playmate for a child with autism:

  • Is interesting to your child
  • Is interested in a playdate with your child
  • Has a go-with-the-flow disposition (flexible)
  • Is patient

Speak to your child’s teacher to learn more about the other students in the class and see who the teacher feels might be an ideal invite.

Educate the other parents for successful playdates

The more the other parents know about your child, the better you can all set up a structured playdate that honors your child's interests and minimizes potential triggers. The other parents need to know your child is on the autism spectrum disorder and how your child experiences autism (since there is no cookie-cutter version of autism). 

We highly recommend downloading autismspeaks.org’s A Friend’s Guide to Autism, which provides a good overview of your situation, needs, and how they can support the playdate and friendship cause. 

Make sure the friend’s parents understand:

Again, this may seem like a lot, but it’s not all that different from how any parents should plan initial playdates that support each child’s healthy social interactions and wellbeing.

Don’t overthink it

It may seem ironic after the above instructions. However, at the end of the day, there is no such thing as a perfect playdate. Every child, whether they have ASD or not, fights, disagrees, cries, gets upset, becomes overwhelmed, can be obstinate or unwilling to share, etc. This is not uncommon. 

While you should certainly be there to coach and facilitate healthy social interactions for the first several playdates, it’s also true that your child and their friends need the chance and time to work some things out on their own.

Autism Response Team Can Help

Would you like personalized support learning more about what works and what doesn’t for your child’s social relationships? The Autism Response Team is here to help. We take an in-depth and customized approach to behavioral assessments so we can help your child, siblings, family, and friends learn how to have successful, fun, and rewarding playdates. Contact us to learn more about how our services can support your family.

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