Interview with Fiona Zecca, Early Childhood Development and Behavioral Specialist
The very thought of playdates strikes fear into the hearts of many parents of children on the autism spectrum. Who should I ask? Should I tell them about my child's challenges? Should I choose a typically-developing child or one with similar challenges? Will it be awkward? Will it benefit my child? Will he or she participate? Will the other parent agree? And what do we do when we're there? I asked Fiona Zecca to talk about the very first step: finding the right playdate partner for a child on the spectrum. Here is her answer:
I think it is probably more beneficial to match up with a typically developing kid for a playdate. The "expert" player is then able to more easily take some direction from you and keep the interactions going with your child. Of course you could have a playdate with two kids on the spectrum but probably the expectations would be very different--it would be more for exposure to peers and hopefully some interactions. I think the latter would be a lot of work for the mom/dad facilitating the playdate and bring on frustration, like "what's the point of doing this?"
In the past when I have helped organize playdates with some of my clients, the mom of the child on the spectrum has explained to the other mom that her child needs some practice socializing, that this is done best in a 1-on-1 playdate setting and she has been told by the child's teachers that these two kids seem to enjoy each other. She could then suggest picking up the child up from school once a week and have him to their house for an hour. In other words, making sure that the family pursuing the playdate does as much of the work as possible (pick up, drop off, etc.) so that the play partner doesn't feel burdened and want to bail out. With this format it will be very clear whether the other parent is a good match or not. Either they will agree to participate--or not.
As far as matching up two compatible kids, you have to take a chance and try different partnerships. It will be kind of obvious whether it is a good match. If your child is not in distress and it seems that both children are enjoying the activity, it is a good match. If you are matching two spectrum kids together and it feels too intense and too much pressure for each child (and each parent), this is probably not a good match. Even if your child feels some anxiousness anticipating the upcoming playdate but then slowly progresses each week by participating more, or being more interested in the partner each week, this is success. Remember that typically it takes children time to get used to everything. The more you do the playdates, the more he/she will be able to predict the routine, etc. Stick with it, if possible. You know your child and how long it usually takes him/her to get used to a new situation, if he/she has exceeded this typical timeline, probably not a good match, try another partner.
We'll go into more depth on this topic tomorrow. Stay tuned!
If you would like to ask Fiona a question, leave a comment here or contact her directly at fiona [at]fionazecca [dot] com.