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Pure Friendship for Individuals with Special Needs
Karen Wang

How to plan a special needs playdate

Playdates are an emotional topic for all parents - not just for those of us who have children with special needs. Some parents don’t want anything to do with scheduled time for kids to play with peers; while others, who may live far away from extended family, depend on playdates for a healthy social life for their children. When special needs are thrown into the equation, playdates may be few and far between. Friends@HomeThe Friendship Circle addresses the need for friendships through its volunteer programs such as Friends@LifeTown, Friends@Home and Torah Circle. I can attest to the fact that these programs have completely and positively changed the way my son interacts with people.  But how can someone like my son develop meaningful friendships outside those programs?

1. Identify goals

Think about short-term and long-term development of social skills.  Break down those stages of development into tiny steps and create the “scaffolding” to support your child at each step. For example, if your first goal is to get your child to remain in the same room with a peer for 15 minutes, find and supervise an activity that will command their attention and interest for that period.  If the goal is to redirect aggression, plan a t-ball playdate and have the kids take turns swinging a bat.

2. Identify skills

Relationship skills may look different for some individuals with disabilities.  Author Jeremy Sicile-Kira, who co-wrote A Full Life with Autism as a nonverbal adult with autism, explains, “People with autism do not cultivate relationships in the same way as neurotypicals.  To the neurotypical, it appears that the relationship with the person with autism is nonexistent.  In a society of neurotypicals, relationship cultivation is about being friendly and showing concern.  For most people with autism, relationship cultivation is practiced through shared interests... Research on children with disabilities concludes that they are not able to start relationships because they do not initiate communication in the same way as nondisabled children...For example, children with autism like to play alongside other children but not to interact physically or verbally with them.  Neurotypicals think this means they are not developing a relationship.  But this is how good friends with autism begin to get used to each other.” Parallel play is a developmental stage in which children play alongside each other and even imitate each other without interacting directly.  Some other important play skills to consider are joint attention, nonverbal communication, turn taking and collaborative play.  A playdate can be planned around existing and emerging play skills so that everyone can have plenty of fun.

3. Who are my child’s peers?

Finding peers who are willing to play with my son has been my biggest obstacle.  From my son’s perspective, his peers are the other students with special needs who are fully included in general education classes with him.  Those are the only people who truly understand his daily struggles.  But those are also the people who work the hardest to fit in, and they don’t always want to play with someone like my son - and sometimes their parents prevent it, too. I quickly realized that I had to be open to all types of friendships, with older and younger children, with and without disabilities, for my son’s sake.  I encourage him to call and e-mail his sophisticated teenage cousins, whom he adores. Last week we went to the home of a friend who has a 5 year old daughter and a 3 year old son.  My 5 year old immediately ran off to play with the girl, while my 11 year old sat on the sofa with me.  Within a few minutes, the 3 year old boy came to sit with us and began talking to my older son, who listened respectfully.  Over the course of 2 hours, they were able to watch and learn from each other. Laurie LeComer, author of The Socially Included Child, suggests actively seeking friendship possibilities through school, the local playground, your neighborhood, place of worship or community recreation center: “Ask the typical kids if they would like to meet your child, and whethe rthey would like to join you in play.  Ask the kids if they would like to see if they can get your child to join them.”

4. Have “the talk” before the playdate

LeComer notes that this is the most awkward part of planning a special needs playdate, but it is necessary to break the ice.  No one wants to pretend that there is no disability or difference.  LeComer advises parents to call the friend’s parents and introduce themselves, highlight commonalities that the children share, and be upfront about the child’s special needs.  I am open about my son’s diagnosis, but I also mention something specific that he wants to learn and something that he’s really good at.

5. Location

The location of a playdate varies depending on the child’s needs.  When we have friends over at our house, my 11 year old son has a tendency to greet everyone, then hide in his room.  We have more success when we meet a friend somewhere else that he enjoys, such as a museum, botanical garden or the Friendship Circle’s activity rooms.  But if your child is a runner or escape artist, it’s probably not a good idea to have a playdate at the mall or zoo.

6. Activities

The key to success is to find an activity that all the children can enjoy.  Sometimes it’s hard to predict what will work.  One time my son and his friend, who also has autism, pretended to feed and dress baby dolls in the Friendship Circle’s apartment room.  Recently at another friend’s house, the boys all sat around the living room playing quietly with different toys.  Sometimes kids just want to walk or swing with a friend.  Here are some activities that made memorable playdates for my children:
  • Make something: give each child a ball of pizza dough and have a pizza-making lunch playdate.  Or mix together play slime with Elmer’s glue, water and borax.
  • Build something: get a big box of Legos on the table or a bunch of PVC tubes and connectors in the backyard.  I showed the kids how to hook up the tubes to the hose, and they spent a long time studying the way the water flowed in different directions.
  • Enjoy nature: go to the beach together or take a walk in the woods.
  • Follow their interests: my son has had a lifelong interest in art museums, so we often bring along a friend - I’ve never met a kid who didn’t love art museums.  One of our friends was interested in carnivorous plants, so I brought a group of kids to the botanical garden to see the Venus fly traps and pitcher plants.
  • Just hang out: if your child is the mellow type, plan a mellow playdate - play some music and offer quiet activities such as puzzles or simple crafts.

7. Length

Sometimes I push my son to tolerate longer periods of socializing; but I also know how to make a hasty retreat when I see a shift in mood or agitation.  When he was younger, I usually limited playdates to about 1 hour, but now he enjoys visiting with friends for about 2 hours.  Being sensitive to his mood increases his interest in planning future playdates.

8. It doesn’t have to be perfect

Kids don’t remember things the way adults do.  For example, my kids like to remember all the fun times they had splashing with friends in the backyard kiddie pool - while I remember how they streaked through the house without their swimsuits in front of everyone. My older son lovingly remembers everyone who has ever visited us, and he doesn’t recall that he left our guests, went to his room and wouldn’t come out.  But each time we have guests, he spends a little less time in his room and a little more time participating in conversation. Earlier this summer we met a friend at the beach, and our friend took off his swimsuit and urinated on the beach several times due to sensory issues.  As the summer passed, the beach became one of his favorite places, and his behavior became more appropriate.  My point is that a disaster is not necessarily a disaster - it may be leading up to a new understanding of the world.

9. Know when it’s time to end

Sometimes playdates last less than 5 minutes, sometimes they go on all afternoon.  Both short and long playdates are worthwhile learning experiences. how to plan a special needs playdate

10. Review and re-boot

At the end of the day, talk about what you learned and what you would like to do next time. With friends, there’s always a next time.

WRITTEN ON November 15, 2013 BY:

Karen Wang

Karen Wang is a Friendship Circle parent. You may have seen her sneaking into the volunteer lounge for ice cream or being pushed into the cheese pit by laughing children. She is a contributing author to the anthology "My Baby Rides the Short Bus: The Unabashedly Human Experience of Raising Kids With Disabilities"