Playdates are a great way for little kids to practice social interactions and develop cognitive and language skills, as well as practice self-regulation—especially if they don’t have regular exposure to other kids through a daycare or preschool setting. Of course, they can also be challenging for any parent for the very reason of their social interaction inexperience. But parents of kids who are neurodivergent, in particular, may find a little extra upfront preparation to be helpful as differences in how their child plays or is affected by their surroundings start to become apparent.
This week’s Parental Advisory question comes from a member of our Offspring Facebook Group:
My son is on the autism spectrum and as he nears 4 years old, it’s becoming more obvious to other kids his age that he doesn’t play the same way they do. How can I plan play dates with my friends whose kids are neurotypical when I know my son might get overwhelmed and need to leave quickly or might have a reaction to some noise or event that the other child doesn’t understand? Ways to help encourage play with other children in general would be welcome as well!
I reached out to Dr. Shelli Dry, a paediatric occupational therapist and director of clinical operations at Enable My Child, with your question, and she offered up some strategies you might try both before and during the playdate to help facilitate your son’s play with his peers. Many of these really will apply to neurotypical and neurodivergent kids alike, but you may find them particularly helpful.
Before the playdate
One of the biggest considerations should be where—and when—to have the playdate. If you know that noise or crowds may overwhelm your child, choose a location that is likely to be low on stimulation. You probably already know that the local splash pad on the hottest day of the summer probably isn’t going to be your best bet.
If you’re going to schedule it at a public place, though, try to choose a time when you know it will be less crowded, such as during school hours. Scope it out ahead of time and arrive a little early so they can get acclimated to the space. You’ll also want to choose a time when you know your child isn’t likely to be hungry or tired.
Dry also told me that you can work with him ahead of time by using “social stories” to prepare him for how he can react if he becomes overwhelmed—and then practice using those coping mechanisms.
“You can say, ‘There might be some big noises; you can cover your ears or you can walk away,’” she says. “This is something a simple social story works wonderfully for; you can practice with your child before the event so he’ll know what he can do if, say, he hears an aeroplane fly overheard.”
Before the playdate, Dry also says to remember to help them develop some basic playdate skills at home, such as sharing and taking turns. At ages 3 and 4, many kids are still learning how to play together, so a little practice is good preparation.
It sounds like you’re currently mostly having playdates with your friends and their children, so they may already understand that your son is on the autism spectrum and the challenges he has with playdates. If you’re scheduling a playdate with a parent you’re less familiar with, though, you should consider disclosing that ahead of time so there isn’t a misunderstanding in the moment.
“If she’s comfortable telling people that her son is on the spectrum, I think that’s always a good idea,” Dry says. “She should also tell them he’s working on learning to play with other children, but if he’s having too hard of a time, we may need to leave early and try again another time.”
During the playdate
One of the best things you can do for him in a playdate situation is to consider and incorporate his strengths. He very likely has favourite toys that he really enjoys or is very good at playing with. Dry says to let him bring a few of them along—he may want to show the toys to his playmate, and that can help initiate play.
And if the kids simply aren’t interacting? Show ‘em how it’s done! Get down on the floor and join in to model how playing with others looks.
“She can start out being really hands-on and keep him close by her,” Dry says. “And then, she can start to move away as he starts to learn the skills of playing with others.”
Have a parenting dilemma you’re grappling with? Email your questions to [email protected] with “Parental Advisory” in the subject line, and I’ll try to answer them here.