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Planning the Best Playdate for Your Child With Autism

October 13, 2023

The word “playdate” is a dreaded word for many autism families.  I know numerous families that will avoid playdates for several reasons. Many parents think their child cannot participate in them because they lack the play, social, and verbal skills to be successful.

Planning the Best Playdate for Your Child With Autism

Some parents will not schedule playdates because they are not themselves social. Another sad but true reality is that some children with autism are not asked to be a part of playdates, which often leads families to feel rejected and isolated. Whatever the reason is, I am here to remind you that playdates are extremely important to any child’s development.

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Sensory Play Ideas

How do children socialize? Children socialize through play.  Since one of the significant deficits of autism is socialization, it is necessary for children with autism to play. It is through play that children have peer models to learn from and to teach social skills in a naturalistic setting.  Adults can use social stories, teach play in a rote way, use visual schedules, etc.

However, most children don’t play in a structured rote way. Children are spontaneous when they play.  Although these techniques may be helpful in a 1:1 setting, often children with autism are unable to generalize the play skills they learned in a 1:1 setting to a natural play environment.

ALL children, whether diagnosed with autism or not, have an activity that brings them joy. It is your job as a parent to identify the play activities that bring your child joy. Ask yourself, “What activities make my child laugh?  What toy is my child drawn to? What interests does my child have?  It can be bubbles, swinging, puzzles, playing with cars, etc. Once you have identified what brings your child joy, take 10-15 minutes out of your day to teach your child how to take turns while engaging in that activity.

Turn your child’s joyous activity into a turn-taking activity.  If it is blowing bubbles, you can take turns with your child to blow bubbles.  If it is playing cars, you can take turns pushing cars down a ramp. Whatever the activity is, once your child can take turns, he/she is on the way toward a playdate!

Turn-taking is a first step, however, there are many things to consider before setting up a playdate.  Below is a list of five tips that parents need to keep in mind:

1. Practice, Practice, Practice:

Identify one or two play activities your child enjoys, practice by playing those activities with your child 10-15 minutes a day. For example, if your child likes puzzles, then practice taking turns with putting puzzles pieces together while teaching the concept of “my turn, your turn.” Maybe your child has a knack for remembering—then teach him/her how to play the game Memory.

Once your child understands the concept of turn taking, begin to expose him/her to simple games such as: Don’t Break the Ice, Hungry Hungry Hippos, Hide N Seek, just to name a few. The more exposure your child has playing different games, the more successful the playdate will be. When your child can engage with you in simple turn-taking games, then invite a peer over to play so that your child can generalize those skills to kids.

2. You Have to Be Social:

I have experienced that many parents do not schedule playdates because they themselves are not social. You can’t expect your child to be social if you are not social yourself. Get out of your comfort zone and start socializing with parents in your child’s class, talk with neighbors who have children your child’s age. Socialization doesn’t happen naturally for children with autism. To help your child be socially successful with peers, it will be your job to help him/her navigate social situations by scheduling playdates for them.

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3. Keep Playdates Short:

One of the biggest mistakes parents make when they set up playdates is they schedule it for hours and hours. Think of a playdate as working out in a gym. Would you workout for 3-4 hours? Unless you are an athlete, my guess would be no. Socializing is like working out for your child, so when scheduling a playdate, it is important to remember that. At first, keep the playdate to 45 minutes. As your child gains more experience with playdates, you can schedule them for an hour. Never schedule a playdate longer than an hour and a half, unless you see that your child is having fun with their playmate.

4. Playdates Need Structure:

Children with autism like structure and familiarity. When setting up a playdate, schedule it to be at your house. Scheduling a playdate in your home sets your child up for success because your child is in a familiar environment and has his/her favorite play activities to engage in (go back to Tip 1.) It is also important for a parent to be present and to facilitate the entire playdate. Your child will not be able to spontaneously play with another peer on his/her own and will need some adult guidance.

One way to set up a successful playdate is to structure it up by doing something physical like swinging or jumping on a trampoline, then to engage in a calmer activity like a puzzle or game, then end it with a snack. By structuring up the playdate, you are providing a beginning and end for your child. This way, your child knows that after snack the playdate will be over.

5. Find a Good Peer Match:

A good peer match is crucial for a successful playdate. A suitable peer match is a child who is flexible, patient, and can model age-appropriate play skills. Ask your child’s teacher which peer in the class would be a good playmate for your child. Then reach out to that child’s parents and set up a playdate.  Also, siblings, cousins, and neighbors make for great playdates as well. You want to pick peers that your child is drawn to and will enjoy. The most important aspect of a playdate is to have fun!

Playdates are immensely beneficial to your child’s social development. I always say to clients it is great that your child can read, or can solve math problems, but if your child can’t navigate his/her social world, then many of those skills are meaningless. Children learn from modeling others, so if you embrace playdates, your child will embrace them as well!

This article was featured in Issue 92 – Developing Social Skills for Life

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