Facilitating a Successful Play Date
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One of the most important and helpful things parents can do for their child with Autism is give them plenty of opportunities to interact socially with others.   Facilitated play dates are an excellent way to do this.  Facilitating a play date involves helping your child interact socially when he needs the additional assistance.  This might mean prompting him to take turns during play or helping your child and his peer resolve a conflict.  It gives your child a chance to practice the new social skills he may have learned in a behavior based therapy.  Children of all ages and ranges of functioning will benefit from these facilitated play dates. 
 
Once you’ve decided to have a play date for your child, the first step is picking the appropriate peer.   The peers you select should be the same age as or slightly older than your child, reasonably well behaved (i.e., follows directions from adults and regulates their own behavior), and interested in playing with your child.  It is important to choose a peer that can be a good role model.
 
Once you have found an appropriate peer, take time to consider the environment that the children will be playing in.  It might be helpful for the play date to take place at your residence at first so you can control which toys are going to be available.  Often times when a peer comes over and catches sight of all the toys your child has, he or she can become distracted by the simple novelty of seeing another child’s toys.  It is not uncommon for the peer to want to try out all of the toys and not be able to concentrate on playing one game for very long.  To avoid this, it may be useful to remove most of the toys from the play area so that the peer is able to concentrate on playing with your child and not exploring a vast number of toys.  Leave out only those toys you want the children to play with.
 
Structuring the play time is also important for having a successful play date.  If your child typically works with a visual play schedule, you should use this during the play date.  Your child’s visual schedule is associated with “game time”, following the rules, taking turns, using certain phrases or signs, and many other positive behaviors.  In effect, the schedule is a cue to your child to demonstrate these adaptive play skills.  Using this schedule will help your child generalize these positive behaviors to new situations and new friends.  You can have the two children take turns picking activities to put on the visual schedule.  Even if your child does not usually use a play schedule, it might be useful to have the children create a schedule at the beginning of play time.  This will help structure their play, encourage them to compromise and ensure that their interests are both represented.  Another option is to have the children agree that they will alternate picking activities.  In all of these cases it will be helpful to use a timer and put a time limit on each of the activities.  Adding this type of structure is very useful for some children; however it may be unnecessary for others.  The goal for some children is to engage in fluid and flexible play.  For these children, the amount of structure imposed on a play date should be gradually decreased over time to accomplish this goal.
 
The younger the child, the shorter the activities should be.  Older children will be able to tolerate longer play activities.  This holds true for the length of the play date as well.  Younger children should have shorter play dates at first.  Begin with a half hour and then determine if your child can be successful with longer periods of time.  Older and higher functioning children can engage in longer play dates.  Start with an hour and adjust as is appropriate.
 
Different children will need different levels of facilitation during play dates.  This will depend on their ages, levels of functioning, social skills, and language skills.  If your child needs assistance with basic play skills you will most likely be helping him take turns (i.e., recognize whose turn it is, verbalize when it is his turn, and notify his friend when it’s his or her turn), request items from a friend (i.e., ask for a card or a game piece that he needs), give his peers eye contact during play, increase pretend play, and increase sharing and showing toys to peers. 
 
If your child has basic play skills, you will most likely be prompting him to ask his peers social questions (e.g., “What did you do in school today?”), make appropriate social comments during play (e.g., “Good job!”, or, “You won!”), respond appropriately to questions, increase flexibility of pretend play, increase his sentence length during play, win and lose graciously, and engage in “back-and-forth” conversations with his peers.  At higher levels of functioning you may be helping your child to engage in more complex conversations, recognize peers’ emotions, resolve conflicts with his friends, be a “good sport”, play fairly, read social cues from his peers, and understand how to deal with complicated social situations.
 
The following are a few more tips for success: 

  • It is okay to let your child and his peers have a break from playing with each other; the two children do not have to be fully engaged for the entire play date.  Giving your child brief, periodic breaks may actually help him to tolerate longer play dates and keep him calm during frustrating moments. 
  • It is also okay, and recommended, to prompt your child’s peer in certain situations.  Some peers can be shy and may not know exactly what to do during a play date.  It is helpful to prompt the peer to ask your child questions or help him use the phrases that your child understands.   
  • With older peers it can also be helpful, before the play date begins, to give them a few things to remember to do during the play date (e.g., ask questions that your child can answer) and have them monitor their own behaviors.

Good luck, and have fun!

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