I think playdates are the best. Kids get to bond. Parents get to bond. Parents get to help their children choose good friends. Kids get to share fun experiences in a safe environment with adult support. What's not to love?
When you have a child with autism, though, the "playdate" scene is sometimes closed off to you, or at least significantly limited. Your pool of playmate possibilities may already be small if you were one of the first of all your friends to have a child. But then add on top of that the challenge of inviting friends over to your home or venturing to a playdate at someone else's home when your child has difficulty with social skills. There's fear, uncertainty, worry, and a big dose of guilt if anything goes wrong during the playdate.
I've worked in early intervention with parents of children with autism for 8 years, and in that time, one of the most important things I've been able to do is to help parents navigate participation in playgroups and playdates for their children with autism. Most of the information I suggest here is wisdom I've gained from parents' trial and error, and I hope it will be helpful. Here are some ideas that I've compiled over the years:
1. Time it right. - If you're planning a playdate for the first time, timing is everything. You know your child, and what the best and worst times of day are for your child. If she normally gets cranky in the afternoon, a morning playdate might work best. If he's groggy and zoned out most of the morning, maybe right after lunch is a better idea. If your child needs a nap each day, but you really want to attend a birthday party at her typical nap time, can you come later after at least a brief nap? Don't set up the child for failure by letting your child arrive hungry, tired, overstimulated, or stressed out for the playdate.
2. Keep it short and sweet. - Short periods of interaction are probably best to start with. An hour or at most two hours is a great length to start with for playdates.
3. Small is good. - When planning a playdate, one or two other children/families might be a nice group size to start with. I especially like playdates where there are 3 parents and 3 children, because that way, if one parent is supporting the children during play, the other parents can be chatting. If parents rotate the support throughout the playdate, then every parent gets a chance to chat while not leaving the children to fend for themselves during playtime.
4. Be hands-on. - As I mentioned, it's probably a good idea for parents to support playdates initially. Have hands-on activities planned, and try to take turns with other parents for supporting each mini-activity. For instance, one parent can be the playdough helper, one can be the snack helper, and one can be the train table helper. During your time as the "supporter" of play, try to help all of the children, not just the child with autism, so that the help you give doesn't draw negative notice to the child with autism.
5. Plan a Variety of Interesting Activities - Don't let the initial few playdates be free-play situations. If you're outside, have stations set up (balls, swings, slide, sand table, water table) that encourage a variety of ways to play. If you're inside, have several activities in mind that you will do with the children. Think about varying the amount of energy and concentration needed for each activity. For instance, you might have a train table, an art activity, a snack, and outside playtime. Organize the sequence of these activities so that the child with autism isn't asked to switch from a high energy activity to quiet time during the playdate. (For instance, start quiet and work your way up to high energy, with perhaps a calming activity again at the end before you have to get kids back into the car.)
6. Work with the Children's Interests - Try to plan ahead to engage the children in activities that they will all enjoy and especially in activities of interest to the child with autism. You may want to avoid playing with toys that are an obsessive interest, and aim for toys that are enjoyed but not sources of obsession, so that the child with autism will focus on the people there as well as the toys. Also, you may want to put away toys that the child with autism is currently obsessively interested in, to avoid conflict if you try to take it away or if another child tries to play with it during the playdate.
7. Use Visuals to Promote Good Social Interactions - When children come over to my home, I typically use a visual behavior chart that tracks how well my daughter shares her toys. If I catch her sharing, I place a check mark in a box. Once she fills up a whole row of boxes with check marks, she can choose a small prize. Other parents have used social stories before playdates to teach their children what to expect ahead of time, or have established "playtime rules" (with pictures) that are posted and reviewed with the children during the playdate.
8. Expect Snafoos - Things will never go perfectly as planned during a playdate, and that's okay. When children play together, conflicts arise. Do the best you can given the situation, and when it's over, let it go. The important thing is that you and the other parents help the children deal with situations in a positive manner. If your child hits another child, or another child throws sand at your child, don't worry--it happens. The important thing is to remain calm, remain positive, and work through the problem. Show the children the appropriate behavior. Tell them in positive terms what to do. For example, "We keep sand in the sand box. We use nice hands with our friends." Then help the children do just that.
9. Review the Good Stuff - After the playdate ends, be sure to point out to your child at least 3 things that he did well during the playtime. For example, "I liked how you looked at the other children and waved goodbye! That was friendly!," "You were so brave to try that new snack at Joey's house!," or "That was really generous of you to share your paints with your friends." Over time, these praises will teach your child not only what behaviors to continue, but also will help lead her to describe herself with those words: friendly, brave, generous. Also tell yourself the things that went well for you--especially if this was a snafoo-ridden playdate. For example, "I did my best to keep my son engaged today," or "I got to connect with another adult today."
10. Keep Trying - If one playdate totally bombs, don't feel guilty. Keep trying to find the right match for your child. Experiment with varying the time of day, the location of the playdate, the energy level of the activities, the types of sensory experiences, the playmates themselves, or the amount of parental support provided, and then keep trying to find a good combination that works for you and your child.
Also, I wanted to share a little quote I read from the Autism Digest's Spring e-Guide. A group of 25 moms got together to create a cheat-sheet for friends for how to best support parents of children with autism, and one of the things they suggested is:
"Our kids need friends, and even though their social skills are poor, they will never get better if you're not willing to let your neurotypical child play with ours. We can work together to create a positive experience for all the children involved."
Preach it, girls!
Let me know how your playdates go! I'd love to hear successes or horror stories alike! How else can we learn but to just get out there and try?