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Ten tips for playdates with kids of all abilities

Tried and true tips for setting up playdates with children who are on the autism spectrum

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 life.

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 ending.

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.