6 Inclusive Play Date Tips for Kids with Special Needs

When Making Friends is Hard Business

6 Inclusive Play Date Tips for Kids with Special Needs

Play Date Tips for Kids with Special Needs

Child's play should be, well, child's play. But for kids with autism, playing with other children can prove a really hard business.

At its core, autism is marked by a social deficit that makes reading body language and communicating effectively a struggle. Some kids actively avoid socializing, while others (like my six year-old) are desperate to make friends, yet haven't got a clue how to go about it. While they may not come naturally to kids on the spectrum, social skills can be taught. 

One of my biggest fears as a parent is seeing my son grow up lost and lonely. He could well turn out to be an astrophysicist but all that is meaningless if he is unable to forge at least one meaningful relationship. 

Every time I look out the window and see kids in the street racing their bikes or engaging in unprompted play, my heart gets stomped on like a used cigarette. These days, the sorrow is shifting. After a certain point, mourning your child's alter ego is futile and counterproductive. Of course I wish my son could be out there among those typical kids doing "typical kid" things.

I wish he could partake without being shunned or singled out for doing or saying something odd or offensive. These days our social circle—by necessity, by default—has shrunk to include mostly other families affected by autism. When my guy was in a mainstream kindergarten class, play dates were few and far between, and when they did happen, they tended to be disastrous and exhausting affairs.  

My hope is that one day he'll form a friendship in his own right (and not simply one orchestrated and micro-managed by his mom). Maybe that won't happen for a while, but that doesn't mean I quit working with him to develop his social acumen. He deserves a life full of rich and meaningful relationships like everyone else.  

If you're a parent with a child on the spectrum, don't give up on play dates. If you're a parent of a typical child, don't be afraid to arrange a date with that "strange" kid in your child's class. Everyone has to start somewhere. Put yourself, just for a second, on the other side of the glass.

Here are a few play date tips from author of The Pocket Occupational Therapist Book Series, Cara Kosinski:

  • Practice playing. Teach facial expressions by pulling faces and asking your child to guess your emotion.
  • Find children with common interests. Ask teachers or volunteer to seek out good matches in school or from clubs and activities like chess, art, or Lego.
  • Stick to one kid at a time. Siblings in tow do not allow for targeted friendship building between the two participants.    
  • Plan the activities for the play date with a visual schedule:  First, we will work on a puzzle, and then a snack, etc…. This can boost flexibility and anxiety in kids with autism. 
  • Be present to facilitate and supervise the play date. Be prepared to jump in because kids will need guidance in case disagreements arise. But give kids room to find their own rhythm. 
  • Keep it short. Under an hour at first. And always end on a high note, so play dates are likely to recur. 

Remember there's no such thing as a perfect play date. Every social interaction is a valuable learning opportunity.