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Planning for Playdates This Christmas

When I talk to parents about their hopes and dreams for their child with autism, their answers are often very similar.  What do they want? They want their child to have a friend. That is the number one thing they desire. I help parents understand the steps in development that are required in order for their child to take responsibility for initiating and maintaining play with others.  They also learn how to mindfully create opportunities for everyday experiences within the family, to build not only social competency but self-awareness and self-regulation as well. This holiday season, I want to share some clarifying insight about social & emotional development and a plan to structure successful playdates.    

So where do families start?  

We begin by ensuring that the early foundations are established at home with primary caregivers.  This is how neurotypically developing children learn how to play – first with their parents. Some of these foundations include goals such as co-regulation, non-verbal communication, social referencing, perspective taking, exploring and experimenting with novelty, emotion sharing and attunement, coordinating actions and more.  All of these foundations develop in the first 18 months of life! Yet, kids with autism often miss these critical developmental pieces so they need lots of opportunities to practice.  

What happens next? 

Once parents have begun to work on these goals at home, we guide parents to stretch their children by elaborating their work and play in more complex settings and situations, while continuing to gently challenge them in manageable ways.  For instance, we might start off in a distraction free room and eventually move to more dynamic “noisier” environments. We might also start off with just one partner (often the parent guide) and eventually add in more partners such as another parent, sibling, extended family members and/or peers.  

Once kids build up these foundations, they are much more equipped to take responsibility for their share of maintaining their own friendships. 

In the meantime…  

While the foundational work is being fully developed – parents can learn how to structure their children’s play dates for success.  Because kids want to play! They just need a little extra help along the way. Read on for some suggestions to try out this holiday season if some extra play opportunities are available to you and your child.  

Getting started: 

  • Look out for kids who you think would be a good playmate for your child. You can find these children in your community, at school, in your neighborhood or at church.  A family friend or perhaps another RDI family. Siblings can also be very helpful in expanding play. If you are including a sibling, I recommend that you engage with your other child 1-1 in the same activities before bringing the kids together.  
  • Practice engaging in the kind of activities you think your child might enjoy engaging in with other kids.  This will help your child become very familiar with the activity and it will leave more emotional and social resources available to focus on the play with others.  
  • If you are engaging with another RDI parent and child, I recommend that both families have had experience working on the same goals such as co-regulation (i.e. skip rope twirling, catch), non-verbal communication (i.e. charades), perspective taking (i.e. taste testing or listening to music) or exploring and experimenting (i.e. new ways to play with something).  In this way, the understanding will already be established and involving another child will help to elaborate your goals by adding more complexity.  

Setting up the playdate – basic overview 

  1. Arrival 
  2. Guided cooking 
  3. Guided play or craft 
  4. Free play – gross motor ideally 
  5. Down time – snack and a short show or video game (if screen time is allowed and not problematic) 
  6. Say goodbye and planning another play date 

1 – Arrival

Invite the child over, be specific about the amount of time that the kids will be together.  Remember “less is more”. It is better to have a successful short play date than a longer one where kids become overwhelmed, tired and disengaged.   

Plan to guide the kids 50% of the time at least. Observe carefully and plan to step out or in as kids need help.  Also, allow time to observe kids to see if they can sort through challenges before quickly intervening. Kids need to learn how to engage in “repair” actions by learning how to make minor adjustments to maintain relationships.  If you feel that the children need some scaffolding, you might suggest some ideas or provide a little more structure.

Structure your play date carefully. Plan the activities and have the materials ready.  If possible, include your child in steps of preparation. You may invite your child to think about what their playmate likes to do and add that to the list as an option for “free play” or embed it into one of your structured activities. 

2 – Guided Cooking

Begin by making a snack such as Holiday cookies, muffins, cheese and crackers or fruit kabobs.   This will be a guided engagement with both kids acting as apprentices to you. Make sure you check with the other parent about dietary restrictions or special diets.  

3 – Guided Play or Craft

While the snack is baking, the kids can begin to do a structured activity such as a fun craft or science experiment.  Again, this is guided by the parent or adult guide. Fun activities that kids seem to enjoy can be things like baking soda and vinegar volcanos, charades, building a fort with couch cushions, chairs and blankets, a scavenger hunt, making goop, etc.   

4 – Free play – gross motor ideally 

Next kids can have some free play, I like gross motor play such as jumping on trampolines or shooting some baskets. Going to the park if close by or playing in the backyard. Listen and observe to see if your child needs any supports. 

5 – Down time – snack and a short show or video game (if screen time is allowed and not problematic) 

Finally, it’s time for a shared snack and some downtime. While it is excellent to try to reduce or limit screen time, this can be a nice time to continue the playdate without any demands.   Choose a short tv show that both kids like (30 minutes max.) and allow the kids to have their snack and relax in each others company.   

6 – Say goodbye and planning another play date 

It’s time to wrap up about now.  This structured playdate should not take more than 1.5 – 2.0 hours.


It can be difficult to visit with other parents while you supervise and facilitate this play date so set aside your socializing for another time. Play is work for kids and you will be working to help them play – successfully!  

Take some pictures throughout the playdate of positive moments and review them carefully with your child shortly after the playdate ends.  This will help to ensure that your child has strongly encoded their experiences. You might want to send the pictures to playdate child’s parents so they can do the same. These pictures can also be referred back to in preparation for the next playdate to help your child mentally prepare and begin to anticipate the upcoming joint experience. 

Regularly schedule playdates with same peer so that their relationship can strengthen and kids can develop positive memories about playing with their friend.  If one playdate doesn’t go well, there is an opportunity for repair actions to occur in the near future.    

This same outline can be done with cousins coming to visit this holiday season too!  A little planning can go along way to Happy Holidays!   

Wishing everyone a heart felt connected and Joyous Holiday Season! 

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