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Today's Family Magazine

Tips for playdates with children with special needs

Feb 28, 2022 12:24PM ● By Today's Family
By Sarah Lyons

Playdates are an important part of childhood.  They offer time for kids to interact socially without the structure of school or extracurricular activities.  They also help kids learn to share, socialize, and play freely while still having support from their parents as needed.  Children with special needs are no exception and benefit from playdates as much as their peers.  While they may take a little more planning and patience, it is well worth the efforts for everyone involved.  Here are some tips for hosting a playdate with children with special needs.

Be open
Our natural reaction may be to avoid talking about any special needs a child may have but it is better to address any questions or concerns beforehand so everyone is more comfortable and knows what to expect.  “I am upfront and honest about my daughter before we go to anyone’s house for a playdate.” says Barb Walker-Shapiro, mom of six. “Her brain doesn’t work like other kids.  She may have a seizure and is prone to major meltdowns.  I find that when other parents know what’s ‘wrong’ with my daughter, they are more tolerant and compassionate towards her.”  It is also a good idea to talk to your children openly about differences they may have with their friends.  Explain that just because others may seem different or express their joy differently, it doesn’t mean they don’t enjoy playdates or making new friends as well.  Prior to the playdate, it is also a good idea to check in with the other parents about whether there are any food allergies or restrictions and anything important you should know.

Be strategic
Prior to the playdate, discuss with the other parents about what would be the best location to have the playdate.  For some, their own home is more comfortable and successful. For others, staying at home may encourage the special needs child to say hello then retreat to their room while company visits.  In this case, it may be better to go to a public place that everyone can enjoy, such as a park, museum, or zoo.  

On the other hand, parents who have a child that is prone to running away or hiding may find a public place overwhelming.  Discuss your plans with all the parents involved and come up with the best solution for everyone. 

Another great strategy is to plan activities that unite the kids.  Kids who struggle with talking to peers or sharing toys may find that a common interest helps them feel more at ease.  Find out the interests of the kids you are hosting and offer an activity around one that excites all of those invited.  Ideas could include a craft, a game, or visiting somewhere that fosters that interest.  For example, if they are interested in nature, visit the Holden Arboretum, Cleveland Botanical Garden, the Nature Center at Shaker Lakes, or go on a backyard scavenger hunt.  If they are interested in tractors and farm animals, visit the Lake Metroparks Farmpark.

Be patient 
Whenever kids are involved, patience is important.  Try to understand that kids may have different reactions to situations, things may not go exactly as expected, and that it may take some time for kids with special needs to warm up to the situation.  Some children with special needs may prefer to participate in parallel play.  Parallel play is when kids play beside each other, but do not interact with one another.  Children who play alone during parallel play still enjoy the time together and are usually interested in what the other children are doing.  If things do not go as planned, it is okay to cut the playdate short and try again in the future. 

Be inclusive
It is most important to note that kids with disabilities or special needs are just like anyone else –– they want to interact with friends and be loved and appreciated.  When hosting a playdate with children with special needs it’s important to greet them and interact with them as you would anyone else you meet.  “Please say ‘hi’ to my son.  Smile at him, even if he doesn’t smile back.” says Marie Taylor, mother of two.  Even if the child is nonverbal or doesn’t seem to hear you, it is important to speak to them.  

Angela Leever, special education teacher and mother of three says, “Encourage the parents and children to speak to the child with special needs, not about them.  If the child with special needs does something your child isn’t happy with or that isn’t appropriate, allow them to use words to tell them.  Sometimes that is more powerful than the adults intervening.” 

Be understanding
Parenting is not easy and we all struggle with different challenges when it comes to our children.  Ask the parent if they need help with anything prior to the playdate.  “I almost always have a few extra things to carry so please don’t be shy about asking if I need help.” says Taylor.  “I also need a lot of grace.” 

Try to be patient and understanding.  The other parent may be overwhelmed or tired.  It may have been challenging to get there.  All parents have great days where everything goes as planned and tough days where it seems nothing does.  Listen and offer a hand when needed and they will most likely offer the same in return.

The most important tip for having a playdate with a child with special needs is just to have them.  It may take a little more planning and patience than the average playdate, but it is so worth it to both the parents and kids involved.  Playdates offer a great chance for kids to interact with peers and make friends in a non stressful way, and they are also a great time for parents to connect and build each other up as well.