Successful Playdates for Kids with Special Needs

Successful Playdates for Kids with Special Needs

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Do your homework and make plans for fun!

My son wasn’t invited to birthday parties. He wasn’t invited to play after school. He wasn’t invited to much of anything, really.

It wasn’t because he didn’t try. He latched onto kids and would hardly let them out of his sight. In third grade (at a new school), a new kid joined his class, and they became friends. It lasted several weeks before the other boy, Dylan, started avoiding my boy at recess, at lunch, and on the playground after school.

I could see my son was so intensely attached that he burned up the relationship. And as two eight-year-old kids, neither had the social skills to know what to do.

I talked to my son and to Dylan’s mom about putting some parameters around their time together. She had an older son with special needs, too, so she understood.

These are some of the things we tried to create more successful (and therefore more repeatable) playdates between the boys. I was usually the one asking for the playdate, but my suggestions can work both ways:

  1. Talk to the other parents. Ask for help if you have concerns about behavior or allergies or anything. As the parent of the kid who needed explaining, I was always grateful when someone just asked.
  2. Set up a structured playdate (at least in the beginning). Find out what activities the other child likes and if there is anything to avoid, such as certain foods, animals, etc.
  3. Discuss appropriate options regarding video games, movies, TV, etc. Ask about outdoor activities—is there a trampoline or swing set? Are there weapons, alcohol, medications, or sports equipment (such as a lacrosse stick or golf club) and, if so, are they put away so the kids can’t access them?
  4. Write and review a “script” for kids with social needs. Practice with your child what to say when greeting the other child, choosing activities, asking about drinks and food, and leaving appropriately.
  5. Make sure both parents have all contact information and know if the playdate is at home or a park, or somewhere else. Reassure yourself that a parent, not a babysitter, will be in charge.
  6. Plan several activities for the kids—games, art projects, video games, outdoor time—and watch to be sure things stay positive. Stop while things are going well.
  7. Plan for a snack (after checking in about allergies and preferences).
  8. Discuss transportation. Does the child need a car seat? Is the child allowed to sit in the front seat? If you are meeting at a park, who is responsible for getting everyone home?
  9. Teach your child the rules. Does your child have to share everything, or can he or she put away special things? Are siblings going to be with them? How will they transition to the next activity?
  10. Don’t be afraid to ask about anything!

All these tips can apply to any child, but kids with special needs may have more considerations and preferences.

My son needed lots of movement, so playdates at the park were a good match. If we did have a friend over, we kept the playdate short—maybe for an hour and a half after school.

Since most of us have smartphones, we can also use them to share success. Take pictures of the kids playing well together, and send them to the other parents. It will ease their minds and provides a talking point for both families about how to be a good friend.

Consider taking a video, too. For kids with special needs, a video makes a great teaching tool for showing them what a “good” playdate looks like using them as the models. Sometimes our kids can’t see how they affect others or how to know when a game is going well. Videos and pictures give them a visual in their minds.

Transitions are the other area where some of our kids struggle. Talk to both kids at the very beginning of the playdate about the cues you will give when it’s time to finish one thing and start another. My son did well with music, so I played a few seconds of a song that we had previously chosen as the “transition song.” I would also stand or sit near him but not speak. I found that talking at him made him shut down.

As Solo Moms, we also have to be careful of our time. I know I was nervous about my son’s behavior at other people’s houses so I tended to want to manage the playdate myself. But that wasn’t sustainable with all I had to do to maintain a Solo-Mom household, so I had to allow him to go to his friends’ houses. I talked a lot to the parents and reminded them to please call or talk to me with any questions, suggestions, or concerns.

Dylan stayed a friend all through elementary and middle school, and though the boys went to different high schools, they stayed friendly. Best of all was that my son learned how to moderate his passion for friends and not burn them out. He is still a pretty intense friend, but now that is one of the things people like about him!

So do your homework, preteach and reteach, praise quickly, and help make all your kids’ playdates fun.

Anna Stewart is ESME’s Kids with Special Needs Resource Guide and the Solo Mom of a daughter and two sons on the brink of adulthood. She’s a champion for the rights of people living with disabilities and those who love them.

Please feel free to contact us with any comments or questions.

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