Play date planning can be tricky for any parent. Sure, you just want for your tot and their pal to get on and have fun, but there’s a fair few potential issues to think about. Will they share nicely? Like the food you put on? Get on?
When your child is on the autism spectrum, those anxieties increase. You want your child to gain experience of social interaction but you also can't help worrying about him or her becoming stressed and unhappy – and what the other child's reaction might be.
Emma Williams, 25, from Weymouth, Dorset, is mum to 4 year old Noah, who was diagnosed with autism when he was two and a half. Emma says: "A lot of pre-planning goes into play dates; Noah has to know exactly what will happen and at what time. We have to stress how important it is to be on the dot punctual to the other parents, otherwise Noah will be on the edge of having a meltdown. He's such a bubby, on-the-go personality, but he can have meltdowns when he can't control his emotions.
"Noah has regular play dates with his friend Dylan, who's the son of close friends. Dylan's a year older and very good at making adjustments for Noah, so they can play happily with Lego, cars and computer games."
"Home is Noah's safe environment so best for play dates; being somewhere else throws a lot more curve balls at us, if something doesn't go to plan."
Here’s what some ,ore parents whose children have autism have to say about setting the scene for a super fun play date.
Pick a friend
Find a playmate who's a good match for your child, like someone who shares the same interests, likes the same games or toys. If you haven't met other parents at nursery or school, ask the teacher for some suggestions. One-to-one play is much easier and better for your child than trying to stretch to interacting with two or three children at the same time. Remember that play date from hell in The A Word?
Plan, plan, plan again
Thirty minutes is the perfect starting point, especially if it's after school or nursery, starting with a snack. You can build up time at the next play date.
Prepare a plan with your child, scheduling possible activities (and plan Bs if things need to change) in ten-minute slots, explaining what's going to happen. It can help to give your child a visual schedule listing the planned play activities.
Pre-select activities that your child is familiar with and enjoys, like Play Doh or a simple game like Hungry Hippo. The important thing is helping your child learn to play socially, not how to play a new game. “We have play dates with set activities like playing Minecraft. Free play never worked!" says Abby White, whose son has autism.
Talk about what will be expected of your child and how long the play date will last. Talk about things that might happen and anticipate problems, such as the other child wanting to do something different and letting the other child take turns choosing toys. Talk about how your child should handle these situations and even role play before the date.
Helicopter parenting is OK
You're going to need to hover at first, so you can help your child and offer suggestions and reassurance to your guest. Your child may need reminders to take turns and share and reply when a friend speaks. Remember young children often don't seem to play alongside each other with occasional interactions, and that's just fine.
"I know play dates are hard work and need a lot of parental input to keep things running smoothly but at least try," says Jessica Wheeler, whose son Ed, five, has autism.
If you notice that the friend is confused by an aspect of your child's behaviour, explain simply what autism is and why your child is acting that way. Children feel uncomfortable when they don't understand what is happening, but relax when they are given guidance of what to expect and how to react.
Afterwards, give your child lots of praise and talk about what they liked and what they felt less comfortable with. Learning to play with other children can be a long and emotionally exhausting journey for your child. At first he or she may find it too stressful sharing their safe space and familiar toys with another child. But it can be worth persevering, reminding them of what they liked, and working out strategies for situations that might not have gone so well.
"We had another child with autism come to play at our house and even though my son, who is in the spectrum, had got out games like Hungry Hippo they could play together the other child was more interested in getting every toy out. Although I thought it was a bit of a disaster, the other child went away happy and the parent is keen to do it again deeming it a huge success. My son was happy enough because he had a visitor. It is an important experience and I would certainly try again," says Ali Palmer, whose son has autism.
*Note: As autism is such a wide spectrum, there isn't a 'typical' scenario to suit every child. As Karl Robinson, who has autism, says: "For AS people I know play dates were difficult but helped develop social skills. For me they were torture whilst my brain was screaming at me to escape."
With thanks to The National Autistic Society. The National Autistic Society is the leading UK charity for autistic people (including those with Asperger Syndrome) and their families, providing information, support and campaigning for a better world for autistic people.