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Karen Wang
BY Karen Wang

7 Tips for Troubleshooting a Special Needs Playdate

Play skills are closely connected to all other developmental skills. Learning how to play means learning how to communicate, how to move, how to think.

To encourage the growth of play skills, some parents of children with special needs make an effort to arrange playdates. Special needs playdates are notoriously difficult to plan, and even more difficult to supervise due to unexpected behaviors.

Keep in mind that behavior is communication, and the child’s needs must be supported at each stage of development. Play is one way that those needs are communicated. Often a child may be trying to demonstrate a need to end play time and return to a comforting activity, and that choice should be respected. With patience, it is possible to wait for the right opportunity for a successful play experience.

After years of playdates and talking to other parents about their playdates, I’ve noticed some patterns in the problems that arise. Here are 7 of the most common issues with special needs playdates, and some of the strategies that help families work through them.

1. One child becomes aggressive, and one child is frightened

A special needs playdate is not the right time for parents to sit back and chat over coffee while the kids play in the next room. Children with special needs may be accident-prone because of a delay in spatial awareness, or they may engage is dangerous attention-seeking behavior, or a mix of emotions may explode after a build-up. Direct supervision is necessary, and it’s better to intervene before an injury occurs. When a playdate turns aggressive, it usually seems like parents get confused about the correct etiquette, and each parent waits for the other to take action.

In my opinion, the correct response is to put safety first by stating and re-stating the house rules that apply to both children and adults. By doing so, the adult is modeling the protective behavior that the child is trying to learn. If the situation continues to escalate, then the playdate should end.  Or better yet, a playdate can be timed to end before aggression starts, and each subsequent playdate can be slightly lengthened to maximize the learning experience.

If aggression is a known possibility beforehand, then the non-aggressive child can be coached on a safety plan – I taught my younger son to come to me to be picked up out of harm’s way whenever a certain child waved sticks at him.

2. Is it disinterest or parallel play?

A lot of families give up on playdates because a child appears disinterested and does not initiate interactions. But the child may have a completely different perception. My teenage son enjoys having guests over, but seems to avoid them.  From his point of view, he is appreciating their companionship and observing the guests on his own terms while engaging in his preferred activities.

For example, one of his good friends came over recently and immediately started lining up toy cars while my son built the Lincoln Memorial out of Legos. It was a classic example of parallel play, except that these were teenagers, not toddlers.

After several minutes of playing separately, they finished the Lego kit together, moved on to a board game that they both enjoyed and then asked to hold our pet guinea pigs. Both boys were relaxed and comfortable together without being pushed to socialize in the “right” way.

3. The child runs away and hides

Like other types of anxiety, social anxiety can be treated with a gradual desensitization process. I spent time showing photographs and telling stories about visitors before their arrival, then did formal introductions. With each visit, my younger son spent less time hiding. He often hid behind the sofa, where he could watch and listen to everything without participating. Gradually, he came closer to the center of activity, and now he enjoys playing host to the visitors with whom he feels comfortable.

Last summer he allowed me to photograph him with some guests. Pressuring him to participate would have increased his anxiety.

4. The child panics and screams when visitors arrive

Once a panic attack starts, any attempt at socializing or play is futile. I had to turn away relatives and send away playgroups to take care of my son. His social anxiety limited our ability to have anyone visit our home, and he felt deeply threatened whenever anyone entered our home.

The solution was to go out and socialize with as many people as possible in as many locations as possible, so that he became accustomed to the idea of companionship. This took many years to achieve, because of the number of people who felt alienated by his panic attacks, but we also discovered abundant kindness and compassion along the way. These experiences turned into beautiful social skills lessons for both me and my son.

5. The parents are close friends but the kids don’t get along or the kids are best friends but the parents don’t get along

Both of these situations offer the same lesson in respect. If the children don’t get along, then the parents can schedule a separate time to hang out without kids. If the parents don’t get along, they can schedule a separate time for the kids to play – supervised by one parent.

6. Other parents pull their children away at the playground

Many parents of children with special needs have witnessed it firsthand: a parent at the playground notices something “different” about another child, and directs her own children away from that child. I put these parents in the same category as the ones who schedule a playdate and don’t show up.

We can’t control the way others choose to parent, and it’s not worth the time or energy to change their minds.

7. Strangers’ kids seek attention on the playground from the “fun” parent

I climb,swing and slide with my kids, and we love to visit new playgrounds all over town. It’s a great opportunity to work on therapy goals and learn how to adapt to new environments and social situations…and we just enjoy playing together. An adult on the playground equipment usually attracts quite a bit of attention from children who are playing alone, and some of the children can become very demanding.

Attention can be re-directed to the child with special needs through simple explanations, such as “Louie is learning how to ____. Can you help?” Being the fun parent on the playground has its advantages!

For better or for worse, anything is possible on a special needs playdate. Most issues cannot be resolved overnight, but they can be detangled over time with a winning combination of patience, alternate perspectives and compassion.

Karen Wang

Written on February 9, 2015 by:

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"