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