Play dates are a “normal” part of childhood for most children. However, it can difficult to plan play dates if your child has ASD or other disabilities. Parents of children with disabilities may shy away from the idea of hosting a play date because their child has meltdowns, or they don’t want other children to bully their child. However, play dates can be an excellent way to teach your child socially appropriate behaviors in a natural environment. Below are five tips for setting up a successful play date.
1. Plan Ahead: Having a variety of interest-based activities planned can help make play dates more successful for your child. It is best to plan activities that are interesting to both the child with ASD and the peer(s) whenever possible. A visual schedule of activities can help reduce the anxiety of your child with ASD. It is best to prepare the schedule of activities using pictures and/or words, review the schedule with the child before the play date, and use the schedule during the play date. This allows the child to know exactly what to expect and what comes first, next, and last.
2. Teach the Expectations: Once you have developed a plan of interest-based activities, teach your child the behavioral and social expectations for the play date. This can be done with a literacy based behavioral intervention such as a Social Story©. These stories should be written from the child’s perspective and explain what will or may happen during the play date and the behaviors the child is expected to display.
3. Use Peer-Mediated Interventions. Once you’ve planned the activities for the play date and prepared your child, it is time to ensure your child is supported throughout the play date to increase the likelihood of success. Even with adequate preparation, without the necessary support, your child may end up “doing his/her own thing” instead of actively engaging with the peer(s). Instead of jumping right in and telling your child what to do, try to utilize the peer(s) to bring your child into the activity. This is called peer-mediated interventions. Simply put, when you use peer-mediated interventions you encourage the typically developing peer(s) to use strategies to encourage the child with ASD to interact. You can teach peers strategies such as following the child’s lead, prompting/fading procedures, positive reinforcement, and modeling/request imitation. Consider this example: John came over to play with Scott, a young boy with autism. The parents set up Moon Sand for them to play with. John begins building a fortress, while Scott is burying his hands in the sand. Instead of forcing Scott to build a castle, you could say, “Wow! John that’s a great castle you’re building! When you’re finished, do you want to let Scott bury your hands in the sand?” In this example, you are teaching the peer to follow the child’s lead. You may need to facilitate to get the interaction going, but you can fade out once the children are engaged in the interaction.
4. Avoid Disaster. In the beginning, you may find that starting with shorter play dates (15-30 minutes) is better for your child. You can then work up to longer play dates. While it is important that you are not overbearing during your child’s play date, you want to make sure you are keeping a close enough eye on your child to prevent a possible meltdown. If you notice your child’s warning signs for a meltdown, it is best to intervene to prevent an outburst. He/she may just need a short five minute break from the situation to regroup. Sometimes a favorite snack will help, and the friend will likely be ecstatic to eat a snack as well. Changing from an intensive hands-on activity to a more calming activity such as swinging, listening to music, or coloring may also help you avoid disaster. Of course this does depend on each individual child’s interests and sensory needs. It is also best to start with just one peer at a time for play dates and include more children once your child has success.
5. Manage Meltdowns. No matter how hard we work to be proactive, sometimes meltdowns still occur. Make sure you have a back-up plan in case this happens. Pop in a movie for the friend or ask the peer’s parents to pack a favorite toy just in case. Explain to the peer that your child sometimes gets overwhelmed and needs a few minutes to relax. Take your child into a setting where he/she feels the most comfortable (bedroom, play room, etc.). Try not to put any added pressure on your child. Give your child as much time as needed to feel comfortable returning to the play date. Once your child is composed, have the child choose an activity that he/she enjoys and invite the friend to participate.
Written by Jennifer Rodecki, M.Ed. & Deb Leach, Ed.D., BCBA
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