Special Needs Parenting

5 Practical Tips for Successful (and Joyful!) Playdates with a Special Needs Child

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This is day 27 of 31 Days of Supporting the Special Needs Family. To view the story behind this series and the series contents, please visit the landing page. Today, Katie from Wonderfully Made is guest posting about playdates! 

5 Practical Tips for Successful (and Joyful!) Playdates with a Special Needs Child

#1 Have them!

Neurotypical children and special needs children can learn so much from each other! The world is a big, uncertain place for all little ones, and forming friendships with families of all kinds helps prepare them for it!

#2 Keep them brief

Special needs families have schedules that are mind-boggling. They are constantly on the go, racing from therapy to therapy, appointment to appointment, emergency to emergency. Know that their time is precious. And that while part of them desires normalcy, such as having a playdate, their mind is also racing with a million other things and craves peace. To find a happy medium: stay for an hour, maybe two, and then head out. Realize that even if the child does not seem tired or on the verge of a meltdown to you, they need a break. In my son’s case, even if he does not appear to be on the verge of a meltdown, his exhaustion can hit later in the day and linger sometimes for days after a playdate that went on for too long. Also, sometimes a playdate needs to be cut short. If so, listen to the parents, offer a loving hug and to come back another time.

Finally, special needs families, know that it can feel very overwhelming to come into a home in which there are great medical needs, confusing behaviors, etc. Offer your friend the same opportunity to leave early if they feel uncomfortable or overwhelmed.

#3 Be open to each other’s concerns

Acknowledge and communicate the struggles you are facing with your special needs child so friends can be prepared with what to expect. Friends, in turn, recognize that processing the needs of a special needs child is exhausting and often heart-wrenching, and talking about it out loud, especially with someone not facing those challenges can be hard.

Special needs families, offer an open and loving environment in which friends can ask questions and don’t be offended by some of the questions you may get. Remember, this is new to others, just as it was once new to you. Keep that in mind and engender an open dialogue to foster understanding and friendship.

Use a play date as an opportunity to teach neurotypical children that some children are different. At the same time, special needs families, recognize that sometimes families who have neurotypical children, may not want their children to pick up challenging behaviors. For example, if your child is struggling with hitting, allow your friend to say, “my son is learning not to hit right now, so if he observes that behavior, I’m going to need to be able to communicate to him that we do not hit.” Or for them to take some time before scheduling a playdate to feel comfortable with their children observing behaviors that are not “typical.”

#4 Be gracious

Understand that a playdate may need to be rescheduled up until the very last minute because a special needs child is having a tough moment, a tough day, or a tough week. And know that 99% of the time, these struggles are beyond the child or the family’s ability to foresee or control. Also, know that it is difficult enough to manage a meltdown without feeling guilty about having to cancel a play date on top of it.

So, rather than saying, “Aw bummer! We were really planning on this! Couldn’t he just work through it or get together later today?” Say something like this instead, “I am so sorry he is having a tough day. I know you both must be exhausted. We would love to reschedule for a time that is better for you and for him. And if there is anything we can do to help today – pick up some groceries, run an errand for you – please let us know! And p.s. – you’re an awesome mom.” Words of understanding like these go farther in the life of a special needs family than you could imagine.

In turn, special needs families, be kind and understanding to families who must, too, alter their plans if you need to cancel on them.

Finally, and this is a tricky one, special needs children are often rigid in their thinking. So, if you are not sure whether or not you will be able to make a playdate with a special needs child, be sure to let the family know ahead of time. That way, they can prepare their child to be flexible in their thinking. For example, if Jack is told he is having a playdate with a friend, he has a very difficult time understanding when that playdate is cancelled, and often will panic when that plan does not come to be, resulting in screaming, crying, and perseveration sometimes for days or weeks beyond when the playdate was to take place.

Conversely, special needs families, be sure to cater to your child’s needs as best you can. If you know they are super rigid in their thinking, check in with your friend the day of to make sure the plan is still to get together before you begin to prepare your child for the playdate.

#5 Invite neurotypical siblings to playdates

My son has many needs, but so does his neurotypical sister, Kristen. And some of those needs include having special time focused on just her or taking a break away with friends and loved ones. Everyone needs a break every now and then, and special needs siblings are no exception. They are truly special, beautiful children, and they deserve some TLC, too!

5 Practical Tips for Successful (and Joyful!) Playdates with a Special Needs Child
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Katie is the blessed wife of an Air Force veteran and mother of two (soon to be three!) precious children. Her oldest child, Jack, age 5, was diagnosed with autism in January 2013. Later that year, Katie felt the Lord calling her to share her family’s journey and she launched Wonderfully Made, a blog dedicated to encouraging women along their journeys of faith, motherhood, marriage, and special needs. It is her deepest hope and prayer that what she shares at Wonderfully Made will encourage you to laugh, cry, learn, accept, and rejoice in what makes our children and each of us who we are—perfectly and wonderfully made by God.

You can find Katie at wonderfully-made.net, on FacebookPinterestInstagram, and Twitter.


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