How to Plan a Successful Playdate for Your Child With Autism
Playdates are an important aspect of childhood allowing children time to interact with peers in a safe environment outside of the home. Playdates can be a great way to learn and reinforce social skills in a natural setting, and play is one of the main ways that children socialize. It is important that all children play with peers as it is often these peers who act as role models from whom to learn social skills.
For children with autism, however, this can present some challenges. Social skills are what guide a child’s interactions in the world around them. But children with autism often have trouble reading social cues and interacting with others in a social way.
There are many different ways and methods for making playdates successful for your child with autism, helping them engage and have fun with their peer(s). We will cover some important tips for having a playdate that is enjoyable for everyone involved.
Challenges of Playdates for Children With Autism
People with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) have difficulties with social communication and interactions as well as repetitive and restrictive behaviors and interests. Children with autism often experience social anxiety, do not want social contact, and can become agitated and anxious in social situations. They can show a disconnect from the world around them and a complete lack of interest in socializing. This presents challenges for encouraging positive social interactions such as playdates.
Socialization is an important part of childhood and playdates help to create healthy social skills. Children with autism often appear aloof; however, these children often want to have friends, they just may not know how.
Children with autism have trouble expressing their emotions, understanding or responding to social cues, have difficulties processing, and often experience language delays. This can lead to frustration or a lack of understanding on the part of their peers as well as for the child with autism struggling to fit in.
The earlier a child with autism can start learning how to interact socially the better, and social interactions such as playdates are highly encouraged.
Tips for Making Playdates Run Smoothly
It can seem like a big undertaking to plan a playdate for a child with autism who may not typically do well in social situations. These children often have specific activities they enjoy and thrive on structure and repetition. There are several things you can do to help your child make friends and have successful peer interactions.
First, it is essential that your child is ready for playdates. They need to have some basic play skills, meaning that they play with games and toys. It is even better if they are interested in those that their peers are as well. It is also helpful if they are at least motivated to engage with other children their age.
When your child with autism is ready, here are some ways to plan a successful playdate.
Choose the playmate carefully.
When planning a playdate, it can be helpful to choose a child that is a good match for yours. This does not necessarily mean someone exactly the same age, but rather someone on the same level and with similar interests to your child.
For instance, if your child is developmentally behind with their play skills, a younger playmate might be more appropriate. Children who are naturally drawn toward the same activities can make a smoother playdate as well.
Children who are patient, flexible, and friendly can help engage a child with autism in social interactions and work with them to create a smoother experience.
Plan a structured activity.
Children with autism often struggle with transitions. It can be helpful to have a structured activity where there is a clear understanding of what is going to come next and what to expect.
Plan a playdate with a clear beginning, middle, and end. An example could mean starting with physical activity such as swinging, moving on to a quieter activity such as a game, and then ending with a snack. It is important to facilitate and provide adult guidance for the entire playdate. You can also talk to your child ahead of time about what is going to happen and how things will work.
Have a cap on the time.
Playdates are great social interactions for your child, but they can be draining. Be sure to keep initial playdates short — under an hour (30 to 45 minutes ideally) at first — to capitalize on the success. If things go well, you can consider increasing the time for future playdates. Playdates should be short and sweet, and the goal is for the children to have fun together.
Prepare and practice with your child ahead of time.
One of the best things you can do for your child to set them up for success is to practice with them before the playdate. You can work with your registered behavior technician (RBT) to come up with ideas on how to best accomplish this. Generally, you will want to practice play with your child before introducing them to playing with peers. In this way, you can teach them how to take turns and work together with others.
Choose an activity you know your child enjoys and practice taking turns with it for 15 or 20 minutes each day. You can then graduate to simple games. The more exposure your child has to different types of games the better, as playdates are often dynamic.
Roleplay the playdate ahead of time with your child so they know what to expect, talk about things that could happen during the playdate, and talk through situations such as the other child wanting to do something different and how to handle them. The more prepared you and your child are for the playdate before it happens, the more likely it is to go smoothly.
Know when to step in and when to stand back.
While it is important to let the children play and try to work things out on their own, you may also need to step in and intervene or help coach both your child and the other child when needed. Your child may need reminders to take turns, share, and respond to their peer when necessary. The other child could potentially benefit from being reminded to try again if your child is not responding or to ignore certain nonharmful behaviors.
Call it when necessary.
You know your child best, and if you see that things are not going as planned it is okay to cut the playdate short and try again later. Remember the main goal is for the children to have fun together and for this to be an enjoyable experience. If it is not, stop it, reevaluate, and try again another time.
Try these tips when planning a playdate to help improve your child’s social skills and help them to feel more engaged and integrated into the world around them.
Signs and Symptoms of Autism Spectrum Disorder. (March 2022). Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
The Importance of Socialization for Individuals with Autism Spectrum Disorder. (October 2014). Autism Spectrum News.
How Can We Help Our Child Have a Successful Play Date? (August 2013). Autism Speaks.