Planning the Playdate: 6 Tips To Successful Socialization For Your Child With Autism

Many of you are probably aware that some social interaction would be great for your kids, but scheduling playdates can be a bear between after-school activities and parent calendars. So, you finally find another child to come over- now what? I’ve included some tips below to help make the playdate beneficial for your child and smooth enough for you, so that you will want to schedule another one.

1. Prepare Activities

Actually, over-prepare. Sure, some kids will just entertain themselves, but if your child doesn’t come up with productive and social play ideas independently, then it’s good to be prepared with activities.

2. Vary types of activities

When preparing activities, it’s good to make sure you have a variety of types of activities. I would include:

  • Active games (e.g., Hide-n-Seek)
  • Crafts
  • Board games
  • Cooperative activities (e.g., building a castle together)
  • Imaginary play
  • Snacks

It’s good to keep things moving to ensure that they aren’t getting burnt out on a particular activity.  I would also allow for some separate time if needed.  Sometimes kids need a break from each other or want to do different activities.  While the overall goal is to have them playing together, a little separate time is fine.  Then, you can maybe suggest the next activity to bring them back together.

3. Create structure

You can all create a schedule or ordered list of the activities together at the beginning of the playdate. I would suggest having your child and the peer take turns choosing the activity. This way, the activity they chose next serves as something you can use to keep them on track. For instance, the peer isn’t playing nicely in the current activity, you can remind him that if he wants to play Star Wars (the activity he chose next), then he needs to be gentle with the game pieces they are currently playing with.

4. Have reinforcers ready

Reinforcers are the good things we use to reinforce the things we want to see more of. They can come in the form of First-Then contingencies (e.g., “First let’s finish playing Legos, then we can play Star Wars”). Or, they can come in the form of reinforcing behavior after it’s happened, such as praise (e.g., “I really like that snowflake you made”). Some kids need more concrete reinforcement like stickers or snacks. I would make sure to have reinforcing items at the ready to provide for appropriate playing and to keep them engaged. You may want to check with the other parent ahead of time to determine what kinds of things the peer may like.

5. Know what skills to work on

Social skills don’t always just appear for kids with those deficits. While exposing them to other kids is a start, you may need to make sure they are actually practicing those skills. For instance, if working on talking to others, you can encourage your child to ask the peer to pass the green marker while they are coloring. I would have this outlined ahead of time to make this easier, and only focus on a few things at a time.

6. Keep it short

As adults, a 3 hour playdate may seem reasonable, but that is probably too long for a lot of kids. While it may seem like just playing, we have to remember that this is hard work for kids with autism. You can always build up the amount of time later, but most kids start to fall apart after a couple of hours. I would keep it to 1.5 hour to start depending on the age of your child. Remember, we want this to be successful for all involved.

Playdates can be such a wonderful way for children to practice social skills. It does require some work, but a good playdate can be so beneficial. I hope you find these tips helpful. Happy planning!