The following recommendations come from the Facilitating Play Dates for Children with Autism and Typically Developing Peers in Natural Settings: A Training Manual (2006) by Laurie Vismara, Grace W. Gengoux, Mendy Boettcher, Robert L. Koegel, and & Lynn Kern Koegel.
Planning play dates can a stressful event for many parents with children with autism. Are they going to accept our invitation? What is going to happen? Are there going to be tears, screaming, etc? Are they actually going to play together? Here are some ways that parents and caregivers can increase the likelihood that the play date will be a successful one.
First off, the friend that you invite to have a play date with can be an important decision. Ideally, this friend will have similar interests to your child as well as be flexible within play. Depending on where your child is at, it can be helpful to have a plan for the play date and remember that plans can change so having back up is a good idea as well. Pick an activity or activities that your child is familiar with and can engage with appropriately as well as ones they may be able to explain to their friend. It can also be helpful to practice the play date ahead of time with your child. Kids tend to learn best with adults first and then apply those skills when playing with peers their own age. As adults, we can be more predictable and reinforcing than other children. During the play date, the adult(s) present may need to be available to promote social interactions between the child and friend. The adults may need to prompt social interactions by redirecting verbal/play initiations towards the other peer, engaging in a preferred activity and then fading out once the friends are playing appropriately together and reinforcing appropriate play with tangible items (i.e., cookies) and/or praise.
While the idea of setting up play dates can be scary, planning ahead can ease the stress for everyone. Remember the main goal of a play date is to increase your child’s social opportunities and skills with peers their own age. Start where they are at and continue to give them chances to practice their social skills in a naturalistic setting.