Navigating Playdates for Autistic Children
Playdates and get-togethers are an important and exciting part of social interactions for children of any age and a key component in your child’s growth. For parents of neurodiverse children, playdates may require extra planning and additional steps to ensure everyone involved is appropriately prepared. Below are a variety of tips and strategies to consider when organizing your child’s next playdate.
Before the Playdate
Ensure Your Child is Ready for a Playdate
There are several exercises you can do with your child to ensure that they are ready and equipped with the skills they need for a playdate. You and other family members can practice basic playing skills together. This can include sharing a toy, taking turns, and interacting with each other. Social stories can also be immensely helpful in making sure your child understands what to expect. Taking the time to create a social story which outlines each step of the playdate will put your child in a familiar space once the day arrives.
Select a Peer Your Child is Familiar With
For a playdate, it is easiest to schedule one with a child who your child is already familiar with. This can include a schoolmate, neighbor, extended family member, or a child from an organization you are all in together. If possible, it can be beneficial to know if both children have similar interests or activities that they enjoy as well.
Have a Conversation with the Other Child’s Parents
If you don’t already know the other child’s parent well or if they don’t know your child well, it is recommended to have a conversation with them ahead of the playdate. If you are comfortable doing so, you may disclose that your child has autism or is neurodiverse. At this time, you may also share anything about your child that could be pertinent for them to know. This can include your child’s likes, dislikes, potential sensitivities, challenges and strengths.
Select a Neutral Location
It is recommended to choose a location that is outside of your home. Oftentimes when they are at home, children can become more possessive of their space and toys than they would be elsewhere. Locations that may work for you and your child include a local park, playground, zoo or museum.
Select an Appropriate Time
You know your child’s natural schedule and routine better than anyone else. Be sure to schedule the playdate during a time when your child is less likely to be tired or hungry and more likely to have more energy and a longer attention span. It is important to also consider how busy the location you’ve selected may be at any given time. You will likely have a better playdate if you arrive at the location when it is less busy, so working around peak visitation times is recommended as well.
Add the Playdate Session into Your Child’s Visual Schedule
If you and your child utilize a daily or weekly schedule, be sure to add the playdate to it as soon as it is confirmed. If space allows, you can include a drawing or other visual of the activities that may take place during it. As the date approaches, you can remind your child what day it is taking place, who they will be with, and the exciting activities they can look forward to.
During the Playdate
Select Activities Your Child is Comfortable With
Making sure your child is as comfortable as possible is key to a playdate. Bring along your child’s favorite toys or activities that bring out your child’s strengths. Avoid introducing new toys or activities at the playdate that may cause confusion or discomfort. It may also be helpful to have your child’s favorite snack or drink on hand to share as well. This can keep your child fueled and happy and have something to share with their friend.
Keep the Playdate Short
There is no required length of time for any playdate. It may be best to start with a shorter time frame such as 30, 45 or 60 minutes to see how well your child does. If they do well with these lengths of time, you can gradually increase them to a longer period that you feel your child will be comfortable with.
Reinforce Positive Interactions
If your child is doing a great job playing or sharing, let them know by praising or rewarding them either during or after the playdate. You can incorporate yourself into the playdate along with the other parent to mirror them playing, talking and interacting. You can also gently encourage or remind your child of any rules or guidelines that they may be forgetting either verbally or by physically showing them. Creating a positive and fun environment can motivate your child to continue enjoying themselves and looking forward to time with their peers.
Have an Exit Strategy
If your child is having a difficult time during the playdate, that’s ok! If the playdate needs to end early in the best interest of your child, always feel that you can make that call. Be prepared with a transition that can ease leaving and moving on to the next part of the day. If there’s a show your child enjoys watching, a snack or meal item they like to eat or another activity that you can do once you get home, you can let them know it is coming soon.
It may take a few tries for your child to become familiar and comfortable with playdates. You may also choose to take a pause so that your child can practice developing additional play skills. The important thing is to continue trying! Staying on this path with consistent opportunities for social play and interaction with their peers is crucial for your child’s development, happiness and overall quality of life.
*Many self-advocates from the autism community have indicated a preference for the phrase “autistic person” rather than “person with autism,” as they consider autism to be a core component of their identity; as part of ALP’s commitment to providing neurodiversity-affirming care that uplifts the lived experiences and preferences of those we serve, we have used the phrase “autistic person” throughout this blog post.