Making friends can be tough in elementary school. Making friends for kids with autism can be even harder. As a parent of a special needs kid, you want to do everything you can to help your child connect with peers. While you can't jump in on recess to facilitate play, you can plan regular playdates.
Here are some tips from parents of kids with autism on how to navigate playdates for your special needs child successfully.
- Sometimes kids need to be taught the right words and how to apply them. Preparation is very important, and running scenarios is essential. For example, I will role play with my son before a playdate - if so-and-so's mom says: "It's nice to meet you," you say: "It's nice to meet you, too."
- Start with shorter playdates. We plan for no more than and hour or hour and a half for our preschooler. For older kids, set a limit of 3 hours.
- Prepare as much as you can in advance. Let them take away their favorite toys that they don't want to share. And conversely, set out toys that they are good at sharing.
- Sometimes a neutral place works better than home where kids can get territorial.
- Try setting up playdates with other kids with similar personalities and interests. When my son was young, I asked him who his pals were, so I contacted the parents and had kids over riding bikes on our canal tow path (safe and with a phone and in a group). The parents were thrilled to get a break and a large group worked well because we were outdoors in nature and had a lot of space. Crazy, yes, but the kids had a ball.
- Make sure they get some quiet time after playdates. I put my son in front of the TV after to sort of unwind before bed.
- Make sure they understand the rules of other people's homes. When visiting other kids' homes, I first make sure my son understands the rules he has to abide by before setting him free.
- Make sure your child has a way out when needed. For me, that means setting up a place where he can take a break if he is going over someone else's house and coordinating with that parent to make sure he knows where he can go if he is overwhelmed. I also make sure my son knows he can tell the parent if he is feeling overwhelmed or needs to leave, and that I will pick him up anytime.
- Make playdates one on one. We avoid parks or places where there are lots of other kids to minimize distractions, keep the kids focused, and help them avoid being overwhelmed by too much sensory stimulation.
- Remember that parallel play is still play. Even if the kids play quietly side-by-side for a time, they are still getting the benefit of being together.
- If you're not sure what types of things to plan, plan concrete activities like baking, crafts, or projects. Making edible play-dough or edible sculptures is a fun place to start for creative kids.
- Be prepared for meltdowns, especially when it's time to leave. Transitions are hard for most young children, and for kids with autism, the bar is raised even higher.
- Keep in mind the strategies you use at home and school -- timers, written schedules, and rehearsing the order of what to expect when can help your child through shifting activities, sharing toys, taking turns, having snack, and going home.
Remember, even if there is a meltdown or two, this is all a learning and adjustment process for your child and for you. Don't think of it as a test. Think of it as learning from experience! Laura, a mom of an 8-year-old with autism, shared a story of a recent play date that was a success despite hitting a snag at the end. "My son had a total meltdown when it was time to leave, but the parents were so kind. Afterward, I talked to my son about how awesome it is have friends who are kind even when we may act unexpectedly. He was actually really moved by that experience. I then spoke with the parent of that child and she said it gave her son a good opportunity to practice compassion."