Special needs

4 ways to help kids with autism have great playdates

It’s a myth that kids with autism don’t want to play with other kids, but sometimes they need a little support with their social lives.

By Joel Yanofsky

4 ways to help kids with autism have great playdates

Photo: iStockphoto

There are few things more rewarding than watching your child on the spectrum succeed socially and make a personal connection, whether it’s for an hour, a day or a lifetime. Still, what comes naturally to neurotypical children may require considerable preparation and practice for a child with autism spectrum disorder. Follow these tips to make your kid’s next playdate a success.

1. Choose the activity carefully

Before a playdate, consider the kinds of activities that motivate your child. You should also think about choosing a playmate who shares an interest in similar activities. As already mentioned, it’s possible that even as your child grows older, they will continue to feel more comfortable with parallel play. While it is wise not to force them into a situation that is going to make them more likely to shut down, it’s still worth trying to nudge them outside their comfort zone.

2. Practise how to play

In addition, it’s a good idea to practise play with your kid ahead of time. Before the playdate, you can also give some tips to the parent of your child’s playmate about what they can expect from your kid. That includes reminding them to be patient if your child doesn’t respond immediately or in a way that’s easy to understand. If your child engages in hand flapping, self-talk or other stims, it’s also helpful to explain those behaviours to people who may not be accustomed to them.

3. Know when to call it quits

Another rule of thumb with kids on the spectrum: Quit while you’re ahead. Amy Spurway, a mom who has three daughters on the spectrum, suggests letting other parents know that your kid is likely to tire of a playdate before other children typically would. “Parents of typical children sometimes expect their kids are going to hang out for three or four hours with my girls. No way!” she says. “Our girls are going to do an hour, tops. Then they disengage. They might even say to the other child, ‘It’s time for you to go home now.’”

4. Choose the right setting

One way to work around abrupt or seemingly rude endings to playdates is arranging to meet at a neutral place and perhaps involve a small group of children—as long as those kids are emotionally intelligent enough not to leave the kid with autism out. That puts less pressure on your kid and you, Spurway says. “And that way you can come and go as you need to.”