Use Play Dates to Foster Social Skills in Children with Autism

The biggest disappointment I’ve had in working with children with autism is the fact that many of their parents are so hypocritical when it comes to play dates.

Play dates are structured play sessions between two or more children.  They are done because kids with autism have a very hard time learning the social skills that come naturally to most children.  Play dates are very beneficial because children learn skills such as taking turns, sharing, communicating both verbally and through body language, and playing sports and board games.  They learn spontaneous play, which in turn improves the ability to learn.  They learn how to think on the fly and practice imaginative play, which helps with kids who only think concretely and not abstractly.  They develop a sense of humor, which does the same thing.  In fact, spontaneous and imaginative play can help kids generalize skills across different people and environments (the inability to generalize is a huge problem in autism.  Kids may be able to learn something at a certain desk with a certain instructor, but may not be able to do the same thing elsewhere with someone else).  Play dates (along with sports, exercise, and other motor skill practice) can help make kids improve their cognitive learning.

Anyway, the problem is that many parents only want to have their children play with kids who are “higher functioning” than their own kids.  Yet they refuse to allow kids who they believe are “lower functioning” to play with their kids for fear that their kids might not learn as much or might pick up bad habits.  In short, the parents are “stuck up” about their kids.

Parents:  you are not making a major commitment for the future by trying out a play date.  Try it, and if you don’t think it’s a good fit you don’t have to continue for a long period of time, but be open-minded.  Sometimes I think you’re more autistic than your children.  You only want to do the same things over and over and refuse to try anything new.   When I see this attitude, it makes me so ready to move onto the next career, whatever that will be.

I’ve heard parents say, “Johnny doesn’t want (or need) friends.  He has his brother.”  Be careful of saying, “Johnny like this but he doesn’t like that.”  So you’ve decided at this young age what he likes and doesn’t like for the rest of his life?  Why don’t you want him to have play dates?  Do you want him all for yourself?  Is it codependency?  Is it that there are so many other more important things, that you want to get those done first?  Is it because you are afraid of failure, and a child should only do something if it is 100% successful, otherwise it’s not worth trying?  Is it because you’re lazy?  Are you afraid the child might cry?  Is it because you just want to hand over big checks to therapists and then let them handle everything so you can be done with it?  Is your child better than other kids?  Whatever it is, it’s not right.

I’ve even known of a case in which a parent didn’t want his child to play with a particular child who was perceived to be lower functioning, even though his child clearly wanted to play with this child and was very distraught about it.  Try explaining that to the child.

The level of hypocrisy is amazing.  I’ve seen parents almost cry because typical children don’t want to play with their kids.  Then when their children take a leap forward, they themselves refuse to have their children play with kids who may be at a slightly lower level than them in certain areas.

Here’s an example of how a child who may have slightly higher skills in certain areas can still benefit from playing with children who may have slightly lower skills.  Child A sees that Child B gets upset easily.  Child A can learn to comfort Child B and say, “I hope you feel better.”  Then Child A can learn empathy.  Child A can also learn leadership skills.  And how about having fun?  You focus on things that both of them can do well, and maybe even more of the activities that the lower functioning child can do well.

I don’t mean to be too negative.  I even once met a parent who was neither a hypocrite about play dates, nor held her kids back from having them.  The reason I write this is that I have facilitated many play dates – over 100 – and the vast majority have worked out great, and the few parts of play dates that haven’t worked out great still help prepare kids for life’s ups and downs.

Be open to trying new things and breaking out of the structure the way things currently are.  Otherwise, you’re just going to get the same results you’ve always gotten.  Reading a social story is nice.  Participating in a social story is even better.

Note – I know the above may sound harsh.  Most of the parents I’ve met do a good job of setting up play dates for their kids, and most of them do want to see their kids have fun. I know of at least one parent for whom all I did for a year for her child was facilitate play dates, and on top of that, she had an additional playgroup.  Very impressive.


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