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Make play dates fun, interactive for kids with autism

By Vince LaMarca, BCBA

The guiding principles of quality play dates are to keep it simple and make it fun by focusing on activities that are already familiar to a child with autism and quitting while you’re ahead.  Making it fun includes focusing on play activities that both children enjoy and allowing choices throughout the play date.

Here are tips for planning a successful play date for your child:

Plan ahead – Setting up for a play date should start with the question, “What play skills does my child with autism already possess?”  Starting with activities in which a child with autism is already familiar will help keep play dates successful because he/she will already be familiar with the basic structure of that play. Also, don’t forget that the peer coming over to play will have his own preferences.  Make sure to find out in advance what activities that child likes to play and have some of those available as well.

Keep it short and simple – It’s better for a play date to start short so that both children are interested in coming back for more rather than trying to keep children engaged for prolonged periods of time.  Initial play dates that lasts 30 minutes to an hour are more likely to be successful than longer play dates. For a one hour play date, having four to six activities is often enough.  For example, you might include 10 minutes of free play inside where children do whatever they want, 10 minutes of facilitated play inside where you attempt to have each child interact with each other, 15 minutes for a snack, 10 minutes of structured activities like a board game or hide and seek, and a final 15 minutes playing outside, facilitating interactions when possible.

Reward interactive play – Children often begin with parallel play. Parallel play allows for opportunities for interactive play.  Adults do not have to force every parallel play situation into interactive play. Adults must watch for both extremes: no interactions occurring between the children and all interactions being contrived by an adult which then cease when the adult is not present.  By encouraging interactions on occasion, rewarding the children when the interactions occur, and helping to bridge the gap between interactions, adults can help keep the play between children positive.

Let Batman do the dishes! – Adults often have a hard time remembering how children play.  During one play date with a peer, the adult was attempting to encourage a peer to come over and play with a child with autism who was pretending with a kitchen set.  The peer was busy putting on a Batman costume.  The adult said, “We can play Batman later, first we need to put our food in the refrigerator before it gets cold and do the dishes.”  To which the peer responded, “Batman can do the dishes!”  The purpose of play dates is to help your child with autism navigate the creative, spontaneous world of play.  Don’t allow your preconceptions as an adult to halt the interactions that may be right in front of your eyes.

Vince LaMarca, BCBA, is clinical director at Little Star Center. See more of Vince’s tips about play dates in the September issue of Indy’s Child (page 36). Read it here.