Early on in the world of mommy-hood, initiating new friendships is kind of like dating. You meet a lot of moms, some you like, some you may not, and then you find the one. The one that just gets you!
You find your tribe, your tribe finds you, and it is great. But when your kid starts branching out of that tribe asking for play dates with new friends, new moms move into the school, you have multiple kids, or your kid moves onto a new class the dating cycle continues.
Teaching inclusivity has been a top priority for me with my kids so we are continuously having play-dates and “dating” new friends. I like to include everyone and I preach that to my kids. But what happens when you aren’t sure how to approach a new mom specifically one with a special needs child?
During Autism Acceptance Month, I wanted to share ways that you can be inclusive and help your child and yourself breeze through a great play date.
1. Practice Play with your child. In some situations children with autism find it difficult to take turns, share, hold conversations, and may even be non-verbal. Letting your child know this may help ease them and you can answer any questions beforehand. Talk about ways that they can play together. You may even ask the mom beforehand if there are cues you should be aware of to help ease their child. Remembering that compassion will always create a memorable play date.
2. Treat them like any other child you would have a play-date with. The child is a wonderful tiny human, not a predetermined diagnosis. It all goes back to the Golden Rule - treat others as you would like to be treated.
3. You’re not the only one nervous or intimidated. When meeting new friends it’s often intimidating and nerve racking., but rest assured that kids and their parents are just as nervous if not more. It’s possible the child may need some time to adjust, so know that it’s their way of regulating change and their adult will help them make that adjustment.
4. Like all kids, kids on the spectrum vary with abilities. Some may be very similar to Neurotypical kids (NT) and others may be non-verbal. Regardless of their ability, treat them with kindness. The adult in their life will help guide you and help you to communicate with their kid if it is needed. It’s always nice when other moms consider your child’s needs a simple, “What does Emma love doing?” “What is Lincoln great at?” “Does Tessa have any special interests?” Engaging the mom through her kid’s interest always makes you feel acknowledged.
5. Try to keep stimulants to a minimum and the play-date short. Having music, tv, video game systems, or a lot of noises may overstimulate the child and cause anxiety or meltdowns. It’s also best to keep the play-date short and start with ten minutes at a park to lessen the pressure and stress on everyone. A long term goal may be a 30-minute play-date. It's a great way to explore new friendships without overwhelming anyone.
6. Find shared interest. Is your daughter obsessed with dinosaurs? It’s possible that their new friend may be an aspiring paleontologist and is an encyclopedia of dino knowledge. Kids can often find something that they share a passion for with new kids they meet. If they know the child from school, it’s quite possible they already have! If a child is non-verbal but loves to spin in circles or flap their arms, encourage your child to join in. It allows each child to engage with each other without words, but both kids would love the activeness of the play date.
7. Make a plan but prepare for it to change. Often kids with Autism do better with a schedule. In ABA we teach kids the first/then method. “First we will play with blocks, then we will have a snack”, this gives stability to the child and lets them know what will be happening within their schedule. IF you have visuals or the child’s mom has a visual board it will also help create safety within the schedule of the play date. Communicate with that mom to see how her schedule usually goes. And if the play-date gets canceled last minute, don’t take it personally like everyone kids on the spectrum have high days and low days, and it won’t benefit anyone if the child is having a bad day.
8. Be cautious of dietary restrictions. This is like any play date, make sure the child isn’t allergic or prohibited from having certain foods in their diet.
9. Remember to have fun! There is no perfect play-date and it’s all about meeting new friends and showing acceptance and kindness. Enjoy the time with your new friend.
Jen Cook-Mishkin is a Community Engagement and Outreach Specialist with Behavioral Perspective, Inc. an Autism ABA Clinic in South Austin. During COVID-19 BPI remains to provide essential services to special needs children ensuring we meet every family right where they are, providing ongoing support, and teaching valuable new skills that families can implement permanently.