Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Helping Your Child Have Great Play Dates: Who’s Coming Over?

Facilitating great play dates for kids who are struggling socially is a complex issue for parents. This post will only cover a small part of this topic, with additional ideas in later posts. It pays to begin at the beginning, so that’s what I’ll do here. The first issue is figuring out which child you’ll invite over for a play date. For many parents, that’s the toughest part.

For children and teens who are developing socially at a standard pace, parents may not have to get too involved with helping their children find friends. For kids who are struggling socially, parents are going to have to get involved. The more trouble your child is having, the more you as a parent will have to step in.

Kids struggle socially for a number of reasons, be it just their personality traits or due to an ASD, Asperger’s or ADHD diagnosis. For kids who don’t do well socially, I find that they have the best play and social interactions with other kids who are functioning socially at about the same ability level. At the same time, kids clearly need to have some interests in common in order to want to interact.

What does this mean in practical terms? Basically, if your child is delayed in social skills, he or she may not get the most out of  a play date with a socially advanced child from the same age group. Too often, the more developed child will either ignore the child with lesser social skills or take on a care-taking, parental role. The goal of the play date is to work on peer relations, and these two types of interactions don’t really count toward that. That doesn’t mean that the play date cannot be fun and useful. I think most social interactions can be, it’s just that they’re not really peer relations.

Having socially delayed kids play with younger children can be one solution, depending on circumstances. With too great an age gap between kids, differences like size, interests, intellectual or athletic abilities may prevent useful peer relations. A chess expert probably won’t want to watch Blue’s Clues on a play date.

That leaves the play date pool considerably smaller, so finding matches takes more work, and parents may need to get creative. Ideally, you’d look for another child of the same gender, same age, and same school, with a similar profile of intellectual and social abilities. That’s a tall order, so you’ll probably have to make some compromises, and enlist a bit of help in searching.

Good teachers and principals can be the best resources here. Talk to the adults at school about your desire to help your child find friends. See if they can introduce you to other parents who may have appropriate children for your child to meet.  Many principals meet with other school leaders on a regular basis, and they may be able to informally search out kids from other schools.  It doesn’t have to be a big deal, just meet the other parents for coffee, see if your kids sound compatible, and set up a meeting for both kids and parents at a park.

The other great resource for finding potential play dates is by attending support groups for families with your child’s particular diagnosis. You can find support groups online, through community agencies, Yahoo groups or, and through national and local Autism, Asperger’s and ADHD websites. Often, professionals working with kids will be familiar with the support groups that may be appropriate. (For example, I list resources and support groups for ADHD and ASDs in the East Bay, California area on a page of my website.) At these support groups, don’t be afraid to directly ask other parents if they know of any kids looking for play dates.

All this may sound like a lot of work for parents, just to get a few kids to play together! In my view, it’s worth it. Strong friendships will help your children develop socially, keep them from feeling isolated and different, and will become more and more important as they grow up and less involved with their families. Spending the time now to set up play dates can really improve their quality of life, both now and in the future.

Readers, if you have other ideas for how to find play date partners for special needs children, please leave me a comment. I’d love your input!

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