Although most parishes I have belonged to over the years have been super effusive and welcoming, sometimes the key to feeling connected is to build those relationships at a time other than Sunday morning.
Which, of course, brings us to playdates.
When you’re raising neurotypical children, there’s a little room for winging it. And while that’s somewhat true for raising an autistic child…well it’s just not really true for an autistic child. Nope. Planned is always better.
So here are some suggestions on how to plan out a playdate with an autistic friend.
1. If it’s your first playdate with this child, consider going to him. Expectation is a major key to success. At his house, he knows where the bathroom is. He knows where the swings are, and which one squeaks. At your place, if he’s never been there, the possibilities feel endless, and can cause him to be, at best, obsessively distracted by trying to figure everything out, or at worst, in meltdown mode.
Having him over to your place is not outside the realm of possibilities. Once you’ve set an expectation with him of what a playdate with your child could be (e.g. we play memory, we play on the slide, and we race matchbox cars), it’s more possible to do those things in a new location. But it’s helpful to start out on his turf.
2. Ask about her interests, ideas ahead of time. Does she like trains? Barbies? Monsters, Inc.? Ask about those things beforehand and consider bringing one or two things with you that might grab her attention, or draw her to your child. Playing on her interests can help encourage social activity. Board games are especially helpful with this.
I do not, however, recommend bringing any of your child’s most prized possessions.
3. Be flexible with his challenges. Sooo…when was the last time you facilitated a playdate with real children (autism or not), and nobody shed any tears or got frustrated or yanked a toy away from anyone else? Because I’ve got nothing.
When you add autism, it gets more complicated. He might be fine sharing the fire truck, but OH MY GOSH HE CAN’T SEE IT RIGHT NOW. Or, maybe the lights are buzzing and no one else notices. It might get a little tantrumy, and you might not know why.
Follow the other parent’s lead. If they need to leave, smile and say you’ll try again another time. If they ignore the behavior, don’t pay it any mind. Just do your best to roll with it, and coach your child to do the same, and move on to something else.
4. Know it will be work. If you’re looking for relaxing mom-to-mom time, or hoping to share a game of pool in your buddy’s man cave, know that this is not that moment. Schedule quality adult time for another day, when you can put your feet up and share a bottle of wine.
It’s likely that your autistic friend will get into an activity or an object, and forget to be social. It’s going to be up to you to prompt your child to pursue her friend, and it’s going to be up to the other parent to prompt their child to respond to yours.
It’s like kiddie soccer. You need the coach on the field. Sidelines aren’t gonna cut it here.
5. Keep it short. Two hours is about the maximum. Maybe even one.
6. Get physical. Ask beforehand what the child’s skill level is. He might be able to play soccer, or he might have a really hard time with organized sports. Or he might really love the trampoline or water games.
However you do it, getting into physical activity can help the child’s focus and ability to communicate.
If it still doesn’t go well after all this, know that familiarity breeds success. Don’t be afraid to try again, with a few tweaks. It might be easier and better the next time because it’s more familiar to her.
But above all, please don’t be discouraged or shy away from an opportunity like this. I know it’s a lot to consider and work through. But as everyone gets more practiced at it, it will get easier.
The rewards–on both ends–will make your efforts very much worth it.