Teaching social skills can be a tricky endeavor because it is a good idea to practice the skills with other kids and in a variety of environments. Unfortunately, many of the families that I have worked with, and that I have read about, do not have many opportunities that are safe and comfortable for them and their child with autism. In many instances this is because they may not get invited to events.
You might think that the solution to this would be to set up your own playdates, however, I have spoken with many families that were reticent to do so because they were afraid that if their child had a melt-down that they may injure themselves or someone else.
The best way to keep your child with autism safe and anyone else involved in the playdate is to try and prevent the meltdown from happening in the first place. This article is all about setting your child with autism up for success in the playdate such that they can learn the very important social skills you are trying to teach and minimize risk of injury due to problem behavior.
Tip #1 Selecting the right environment for the playdate
One of the first things you will need to consider is if the playdate is going to be held at your home or someone else’s. There are many safety considerations to having your child go to someone else’s home none the least of which is sexual abuse prevention. You can read my post about how to em-power your child with skills that reduce the likelihood of sexual abuse here. It is also difficult to know whether or not the environment will be supportive for your child as is demonstrated in a recent post by a parent of a child with autism.
She writes about how grateful she was for an invite for her son in which the hosting parent made it clear that they would do whatever is needed to help her and her son with autism be as comfortable as possible. It was only when she knew that there was a willingness to make accommodations and be flexible depending on her child’s needs that she was able to accept an invitation for her son. You can read her post here.
Unless the playdate is hosted by someone with experience in setting up a successful playdate, I highly recommend you start in your own home or in a setting that your child with autism is familiar.
Tip #2 Define your purpose for the playdate
You know your child the best so you will need to figure out what his/her needs are and start with those. This might mean that you only run an interactive playdate for 10 minutes instead of an hour. It all depends on what your child can tolerate. If you are clear at the outset about the expectations and what you want to work on with your child it will really help you be more effective.
As with any good program you will want to make sure that you work on things that are appropriate and that are not too hard or too easy. It is also a good idea to remember that just because they may have learned a social skill like sharing with you or another adult, it does not mean that it will spontaneously happen when a peer is involved. Some of the things that I have worked on with beginning learners or for first play-dates include:
– accepting a toy (start with a preferred) from a peer
– giving a toy to a peer
– initiate play
– turn taking
As my learners are able to tolerate longer and longer playdates and learn how to play with a variety of different toys and games then the social skills become more complex. Of course there are many, many more and these are a short list of possible examples.
Tip #3 Prepare your child for the playdate
Once you have identified what you would like to teach your child with autism on the playdate then you should practice it with them before a peer is introduced. A playdate is definitely not the place to in-troduce a new toy or game. There are so many other things to learn on the playdate that it may be-come too much if they also need to learn the rules of a new game. Your child is learning some really difficult skills when first learning social skills. He/she may be learning to tolerate divided attention, other people or at least one other person in his/her space touching his/her things and so much more.
Tip #4 Select activities that allow you to teach specific skills
Select activities that promote practice for the skill you are working on. For example, if I am trying to teach turn taking, a board game is a good option. It will also depend on your child’s strengths and are-as of need. Playing Go Fish requires a higher level of cognitive skills than does Hungry Hippos. Your child will attend better and be less likely to engage in problem behavior if they are able to play the game.
This means ensuring that everything is ready to go during the playdate as well. Making sure that you are not distracted trying to set things up, it will flow much better if it is all ready to go on the day of the playdate.
Tip #5 Have a backup plan for problem behavior
Despite all of your best efforts at preventing problem behavior there is a possibility that it will still hap-pen. You will need to have a plan for your child with autism but also for the child you invited. Consider things like whether or not you need to separate your child and what might the peer do while your child is working on calming down. Technology is always a good tool to have for this but it will depend on your child and on the peer’s interests.
Finally, when considering setting up a playdate, it is a good idea to look at all of these tips when select-ing a peer to invite. Some children are better at sharing and following instructions than others.
Teaching social skills can be tricky but if you keep these tips in mind you can reduce the likelihood of problem behavior and hopefully maximize your child’s learning potential. If you need help in setting up a successful playdate I highly recommend you contact a local Board Certified Behavior Analyst (BCBA) to help you with that endeavor.
Sarah Kupferschmidt has her Masters in Psychology with a specialization in Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) and is a Board Certified Behavior Analyst (BCBA) who has worked with hundreds of children with autism and their families since 1999. She has clinically supervised and trained hundreds of staff on how to implement treatment strategies that are based on Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA), she conducts parent coaching and training in the form of workshops for families and teachers on a variety of topics (e.g., safety skills, toilet training, language development, using technology to teach, and challenging behavior) just to name a few. She is a Part-Time Professor and Co-Founder of Special Appucations, which is an mhealth company that develops solutions for children with special needs using ABA to inform the instructional design. Sarah has appeared on Hamilton Life, CP24, CHCH news, the Scott Thompson radio show, The Bill Kelly radio show and on A Voice for All on Rogers TV and Mom Talk Radio.
This article was featured in Issue 38 – Keeping ASD Kids Healthy