How to Help Cultivate Friendships for Your Child with Special Needs

How to Plan a Play Date - FB
As the parent of a child who is on the Autism Spectrum, I deeply desire for him to have real friendships and the chance to play with other kids who are his own age.  But I also know that throwing him into unregulated play is sometimes taking a big gamble.  Will he have an emotional outburst or will something done during play contribute to a sensory overload that will cause him to react, scaring or confusing the other kids or alienating him from these children and potential friendships? Will the desire for him to be included in with his peers eventually lead to self-esteem issues, schoolyard bullying and social isolation?

These are the daily questions parents of special needs kids face: this ongoing teeter-totter of trying to balance the need for our children to have socialization and the need to protect them from psychological and even physical pain.  It’s tough. It’s a balancing act that many of us aren’t exactly sure where or how to begin.

I need to tell you that I dislike the titles of “special” and “typical” we give kids, just like I dislike the word “normal”, but it’s how classifications work, so I’ll use them to clarify points.  Just know that I personally believe every child is special in a very non-typical way, because God created them to be unique! That being said, I am also the mother of a typical child. He’s the older brother.  Like many of you, I have taught my older son the Biblical lesson of loving his neighbors, hopefully leading by example.  We have served in local missions to feed the hungry, put together many Christmas shoeboxes for Samaritan’s Purse, and are currently sponsoring children in Africa and South America. But what here at home? What about our kids even in our neighborhood or at his school who may have a learning or physical disability? How does he love them in a Biblical sense?

Loving our neighbor can come in the form of including all kinds of unique kids in our group of friends.  It can mean going the extra mile and learning about their specific behaviors, which may seem odd to someone who is considered “typical” but which really are a natural mechanism in which they try to function in a world that may be simply too loud or too confusing at times. It is realizing that ALL kids desire friendship and then taking the first step to be that friend.

Being the hands and feet of Jesus can be done right in our own neighborhoods, churches, and school yards!  (Matthew 25:40) The king will answer, “Whenever you did it for any of my people, no matter how unimportant they seemed, you did it for me.”

My friend, Bill Nason, MS, LLP, who is a behavioral specialist, has developed a great Facebook discussion page in which he provides useful advice for parents and advocates to help children on the spectrum feel safe, accepted and competent. Using common strategies, he’s able to speak to individual strengths and challenges in our kids.  Here are some wonderful suggestions that Bill has posted on his site for parents who want to organize play dates for their kids who may have self-regulation or sensory issues. This information is also great for school teachers and ministry leaders who teach in an inclusive Sunday school program! If you have a friend who has a child with autism, I encourage you to share this information with them. Bill writes the following:

“I usually recommend to parents to start with short, one on one play dates, that can be planned ahead of time, previewed and reviewed with the child in advance and facilitated to maximize success. I recommend doing the following for maximizing “peer play” or what some call “play dates.”

1. Plan ahead and preview what is going to happen.

Make a list of what possible activities the child and his friend is going to play. Try to schedule out the play date with possible substitute activities if things do not go right. Always have a plan B ready.

2. Discuss with the child ahead of time the following:

a. What he can expect to happen; lay it out for him,
b. What will be expected of him.
c. How long it will last.
d. How he might handle any anticipated problems (sharing, taking turns, choosing activities, not getting his way, etc.)

3. Practice role playing.

Based on past play dates, discuss any problems he may have had and how he should handle them. If possible, role play them. Also role play and new games or activities, so he is familiar with them.

4. Review the activity.

Prepare the activity the night before and then review everything again just before the event.

5.   Observe and be available to redirect.

During the activity, observe closely and help scaffold the activity if needed. Let the activity flow naturally, unless you see little signs that your child is getting dysregulated. When you see possible problems (break down in regulation), then provide subtle redirection to help repair the breakdown.

6.  Debrief with your child.

After the activity is over, sit down with with and review how it went. Talk about what went well and what snags may have occurred. From your observations, pick one or two possible problems you saw, and review this with him and how he may want to handle them (taking turns, sharing, taking turns choosing activity, etc.). Try to have one main objective (social skill) that you are working on to help develop greater cooperative play skills.

7. Make a Play Date Journal.

Make a journal with a page for each play date. Make an outline form to fill out with the following information. Divide it in two sections:

a. Preparation: List of potential activities, plan B, potential problems with possible solutions.
b. Post Activity: What activities were played, what worked well, what snags occurred, and what to try next time.

8. Help your child’s friend feel at ease by giving them context, as needed

If you notice that the friend is perplexed about, or uncomfortable with, your child’s behavior, then explain to the friend “what and why” your child is acting that way. Children feel most uncomfortable when they don’t understand what is occurring and how to react to it. However, most children are flexible when they know what to expect and how to react.

Do not be too quick to move on to (1) multiple players, and/or (2) unstructured activities until you build that into your play dates. Once your child seems to be building the cooperative play skills needed to co-regulate with one friend, then build in less structure and less facilitation to see how he does handling the “give and take” interaction, and repairing breakdowns in regulation. Take it slowly to maximize success. I see the greatest failure in moving too quick into the unstructured, multiple peer, play activities, similar to what you would find on a playground. This type of unstructured play requires way too much regulation for most of our children to learn from.”

If you’re a parent of a special needs child and have been trying to balance their need for socialization and their need for protection, like me… I’d love to hear your story!  Please share it in the comments section.  May God bless you and give you daily strength and wisdom.

About the Author: Lisa Strnad is a freelance writer/blogger, who regularly contributes to What’s in the Bible? and Jelly Telly.  She is a homeschooling mom of two, who works independently in Christian media in the areas of writing, promotions and marketing. She lives with her husband and children in Nashville, TN.  Follow her blog at

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