This month's blog article was featured in the May 2024 issue of our digital newsletter, Aspire Wire. 

By Molly Jagoda, MS, BCBA
Program Coordinator, Child Services

Informal opportunities for social connection outside of the school day, sometimes referred to as “playdates,” are incredibly valuable for children’s development. Whether you plan to have another child in your home, send your child to the home of another, or meet with peers and their families in a public park or playground, increasing your child’s opportunities for social connection is a great way to increase the likelihood of them forming social bonds with others. I am often asked how to support young autistic children to be successful during a playdate, so I’d like to take this opportunity to give some suggestions for hosting a playdate at home for your autistic child.

Some parents wonder if their child is “ready” for a playdate. Day-to-day social demands can be tiring for those on the autism spectrum, so if your child prefers to spend their time at home decompressing, there is no need to push them to have a friend over. If your child is interested in spending leisure time with another child, they are likely ready to do so. The strategies I outline below can be applied in times when your child is choosing to spend time with a peer, or when situations arise that make socializing with others in their space necessary.

Preparation is key when planning a social gathering, even if just with one peer. When setting up your home for a playdate, consider the space in which children can spend time and where they might be most comfortable. Put out of sight anything you are not comfortable with children having access to and consider limiting the number of play items readily available to avoid overwhelming them due to too many choices. Place things in plain sight and within reach of children to encourage them to share with their friends.

Consider a few board games, with preference for cooperative games over competitive ones. For many kids, competition can make connection and enjoying time spent with others more difficult. Any games that are available, your child should already be familiar with if the goal is for the playdate to be child-led and independent. Depending on your child’s interests, you may also make arts and crafts supplies available, an option for building, or dolls/figurines.

Ensure, if possible, that the children have an outlet for movement and expending physical energy. As we enter the warmer months, there will be more opportunities for kids to play outside together! If you’re planning an outdoor playdate, stay mindful of what is in reach and allow the availability of play materials to support children naturally gravitating toward shared interests. Make sure the children understand the physical boundaries of the play space, and always keep an eye and an ear on children playing, indoors or out.

There are a lot of social pressures that a play date can bring, such as sharing one’s space and keeping another person comfortable. To manage the anxiety brought on by unknowns and to keep your child available for social connection, have, and preview with your child, a start time and end time for the playdate. Everyone needs to eat and hydrate regularly to maintain control of their emotions while socializing, so be sure to consider the time of day and know about any allergies or other dietary restrictions of the children in your care during a playdate. You can confer ahead of time with the other family so that they can pack a snack, or you are prepared to offer one to their child.

If a playdate doesn’t go well, or it does, and your child is not interested in another playdate, there are a few things to consider. Perhaps the two don’t share preferred activities or are not the most compatible play partners. This does not mean they won’t be friends, just that your child may need other peers to socialize with in the context of leisure and play. More likely, if the playdate seems to have gone well, your child is feeling socially satiated. Check back in with them about it after some time has passed and see if spending some time without playdates creates a greater motivation to socialize.