Play dates are beneficial for all children to practice
critical social skills on which future relationships will be built. The
benefits of play dates include: increasing confidence; improving social decision
making; and practicing skills in an adult supervised yet natural setting.
Playing together allows kids to be a part of the action vs.
being quiet observers. Play typically develops in a natural progression from
individual play to parallel play (when children play next to each other), and
finally to interactive/social reciprocal play.
READ MORE: 14 clues that your child may need an autism screening
Many parents of children who are typically developing and
those with special needs set up play dates to encourage the building of critical
skills and friendships. The most important lesson learned from playing with a
variety of children is that every child is different and special.
Throughout life, we meet and interact with people of all
shapes, sizes, and abilities and learning from each other can truly enhance our
Here are some tried and true tips I recommend for setting up
play dates with children who are on the autism spectrum:
• Practice playing. It may be hard to believe, but the act
of playing doesn’t come naturally to some kids. For example, children with
autism often have difficulty with taking turns, having conversation, and
interpreting nonverbal gestures. Practicing and explaining this to your child
may help him to feel more comfortable. Together, discuss strategies that can be
used to help facilitate play. What is a facial expression? Make different faces
and ask your child to guess your emotion.
• How do I find children with common interests? Teachers are
amazingly insightful and may provide wonderful help to identify the children
who tend to play together and enjoy similar interests. Volunteer in your
child’s classroom to see who your child is interested in playing with.
Additionally, birthday parties are great opportunities to observe those
children who may be a good match for a play date. Clubs and activities allow
children with similar interests to enjoy each others' company. My son showed an
early interest in chess. I often arrived early to pick him up from chess club
and to determine who showed interest in my son. The same is true for Lego club,
music classes, art, or sports.
READ MORE: The playground project at the Center for Spectrum Services
• Remember that parents of children with special needs are
used to answering questions about their children and are often quite
comfortable discussing ways to help create successful social interactions.
Also, be mindful that many families’ schedules are busy but a child with
special needs may have additional appointments for therapy, medical, and
developmental concerns. Be flexible in scheduling and do not be offended if the
playdate needs to be re-scheduled.
• Shared interests can make a play date successful. Identify
what the children have in common. Build activities upon mutual interests. So,
set up Legos and build Angry Birds or Minecraft structures. If the children
like the same movie, set up puzzles, art, baking, or sensory play based on the
movie. Consider meeting at a location such as a park or museum. Siblings should
not be a part of the play date to allow for targeted friendship building between
the two participants.
• Make a plan and then review it with both children who are
participating. At the beginning, explain what the play date will look like: First,
we will work on a puzzle, and then a snack. Many children who have special
needs benefit from a visual schedule and knowing exactly what is coming up
next. All of us enjoy predictability and feel more confident with a specific
plan in place. However, be flexible if any difficulties or disagreements arise.
READ MORE: Six steps to a successful preschool playdate
• Consider food allergies and sensitivities. When planning a
snack contact the other child’s parent to determine which foods are safe for
both children. It can be very meaningful for the other parent and is a critical
step to avoiding potential life-threatening reactions to foods. Do not be
offended if the children do not eat what is set out for snack. The kids may
just be too excited to eat!
• Be mindful of any physical limitations. For example, many
children with sensory issues do not prefer to get messy, dirty or wet but they
can be super at doing other things such as building or creating. It’s always a
sensitive topic to talk about someone’s weaknesses, instead ask, “What is Billy
great at doing?”
• Provide adult supervision and support throughout the
playdate. Since children of all abilities have different personalities, disagreements
may arise. Consider ways to resolve conflicts such as asking both kids to take
five deep breaths or closing their eyes and counting to ten. Make sure to ask
the other parent which strategies are used when their child becomes stressed or
upset. Preparation is a key ingredient in successful interaction when
facilitating a playdate.
READ MORE: Diagnosing autism early
• Begin with short play dates of an hour. Keep the first
playtimes shorter until the children become more comfortable with each other. Consider
having more short yet frequent play times with the same friend since
relationships can take time to build. It’s important to end on a good note. So,
if the children are in any type of conflict, help to facilitate a peaceful
• There is no such thing as a perfect play date! Do not put
unnecessary pressure on yourself. Both typically developing kids and children
with special needs are learning while practicing play and social skills. When
learning a skill we all make mistakes. Our children benefit from every social
interaction opportunity. Give yourself a pat on the back and enjoy watching new
friendships bloom and develop.
Cara N. Koscinski is
an occupational therapist and a mom to two sons with special needs.