Color & Control:

Unlocking the Power of Playdates for Kids with Autism 

We asked Brianna Fitchett, MA, BCBA, for her advice on planning successful playdates for children with autism. 

Q) How important are playdates for kids with autism?

Playing and having fun is important for all kids—including those with autism. While every child is different, playdates are often an opportunity for them to use the skills they’ve learned in a less structured environment. They’re also a chance to bond and make friends. 

Q) What advice do you have for selecting compatible playmates?

I recommend that parents and other caregivers consider two things. First, if possible, look for another child who has previous experience with your child—at school, the playground or in your neighbourhood. You want someone who likes and appreciates your child and is patient with their needs. Second, it’s great if the two kids have a common interest or two. Maybe they both like cars or dressing as the same characters or singing. Common interests will help make for a successful playdate and increase the chance of them having fun and developing a friendship. Speaking of friendship, I recommend starting with one-on-one playdates to create an atmosphere that gives kids the best chance of bonding. 

Q) What can you do to reduce your child’s anxiety?

New social situations can be tough for some kids with autism. Setting their expectations in advance can help. Use their preferred form of communication to let them know how the playdate will unfold. Social stories or other visual aids work well for some kids, others prefer simple calendars with words or pictures to communicate the family’s plans. For verbal kids, tell them about the playdate the day before. “Tomorrow we’re going to Rose’s house, and we’ll play in their backyard. They have a slide you can enjoy.” You also want to let them know your expectations for the playdate. “We’re going to their house so you can spend time with Rose. We won’t be bringing your iPad because this is time for you
to do things with her. You can use your iPad when we get home.” 

Q) How do you pick a good place and time?

Picking the right location is important. A place your child knows and where they feel comfortable is ideal. Familiarity helps, especially if they will be meeting new people at the playdate, including an unfamiliar adult. I recommend avoiding your own home, especially for a first playdate, because that makes it harder to end the playdate early if you need to. For timing, think about your child’s patterns. Do they have a time of day when they handle new situations better? Afternoons or mornings? After a meal or a nap?

Q) What’s the best way to keep the kids engaged and having fun?

Hopefully both kids share a common interest. If so, bring activities that match their preferences. If they both like to colour, bring colouring books. Or pick a location that matches their common hobbies. If they like planes, go somewhere with a view of planes taking off and landing at your local airport. Consider the sensory environment, too, and try to select a location that is a good match for any sensitivities your child may have. Is it noisy or crowded or windy? 

Q) How should I discuss the playdate with the other adults?

Walk the other parents or caregivers through the potential ups and downs of the playdate. That’s especially true if they don’t have a lot of experience with autistic children. Even if they are familiar with kids with autism, let them know about your child’s particular needs and strengths. If your child has triggers or sensitivities, communicate these in advance. Tell the other family beforehand if you think there’s a chance you might need to end the playdate early and make sure they know that’s nothing for them to feel bad about. 

Another area where you may want to set the expectations of the other parents or caregivers is how much supervision vs. independence your child needs. That’s especially true if your child needs a different level of supervision than the other child. Let the other adults know if they should expect you to be actively engaged with the kids throughout the playdate or if your child can play independently for periods. 

Q) How long should the playdate be?

There are no rules for the length of playdates, so pick a period of time that you think will work best for your child. I recommend keeping the first playdate short and making sure to let the other adults know the length of time you have in mind. If things go well, you may be able to extend the experience in the moment or plan a longer one next time. 

Q) Any other advice for successful playdates?

One of the best things you can do to increase the chances of having a successful playdate is to have fun yourself. If you’re relaxed and enjoying yourself, that will be a sign for the kids and other adults that they can follow your lead and enjoy themselves, too.  

Brianna Fitchett, MA, BCBA, is the vice president of remote care & program design at Catalight, a nonprofit behavioural health care services provider and network manager. The organization provides access to innovative, individualized care services, clinical research and advocacy so people with developmental disabilities can choose their path.

Playdate Resources:

• A video on building friendships through playdates from Autism Ontario.

• Two articles about playing with your autistic child: Play Your Child’s Way! and The Land of Make Believe from the Hanen Centre, a not-for-profit based in Toronto. 

• A list of organizations and camps that offer physical activity programs for Canadian kids with autism and other special needs from Active for Life. 

Complimentary Issue

If you would like to receive a free digital copy of this magazine enter your email.