Having friends is an important part of being a child, but making friends can be more challenging for some children. As a parent of a child with a disability, you may feel that you need help to help your child make friends.

Learning to be social involves many different skills. Some of these are attending, exploring,  engaging,  reacting,  responding,  negotiating,  provoking,  challenging,  imitating, and even, sometimes, ignoring. It’s a long list, but don’t let that intimidate you. Being with others and communicating with others is essential for your child’s success and happiness.  

Build basic play skills first

Many children with special needs struggle with even the basic skills needed to play with their peers. They may need direct instruction and lots of opportunities to practice. Before they learn to play with other children, they need to learn to play with objects and learn some game skills. Social play is challenging and interaction is complex. Just being among their peers may not be enough for them to develop the necessary skills for social interaction.

Ask yourself the following questions to help determine which areas your child is strong in and where she needs help.

  • Can your child play with toys successfully?
  • Does she continue to play with a chosen toy or item for several minutes?
  • Can she play with those toys with you or another adult?
  • Can she respond to a peer who offers her a toy or other object?
  • Can she communicate her choice of the activity, toy or object she chooses?

Follow your child's interests

Play is how children interact, and you may need to teach your child how to play by herself and with you before you add the extra challenge of a playmate. Start where your child is, follow her interests, and use the objects/toys she is attracted to.

Once your child can interact with several different toys or games comfortably with you, it may be time to introduce a structured playdate. Your goal is to teach social skills, sharing materials and ideas in a very structured, predictable way in a safe place. When you introduce a new child into the play routine, use the toys and games that your child has already shown interest in and plays with appropriately.

Tips for a successful structured playdate

  • Create a familiar routine so the child is not overwhelmed by the added demand of a peer
  • Keep the activities fun for the children, but simple and familiar
  • Create a physical environment that is friendly—make a clear play space by getting rid of or hiding potential distractions
  • Offer a few choices of play activities that you know your child is familiar with and can do successfully
  • Have on hand only the materials needed for the choices that will be available
  • Use a visual choice board, like the sample shown here,that each child can use to show preference for what to play next
  • Alternate activities between games and activities that involve reciprocal, turn-taking play, and those that involve parallel play which can provide more opportunities to imitate peers and less need to communicate
  • Include simple games that involve gross motor skills
  • Help both your child and her playmate by guiding their play when they need it. Intervene when the children need assistance keeping the activity going, and stand back if the play is progressing. Think of yourself as a camp counselor
  • Model childlike play behavior, use silly language and expressive emotions
  • Keep activities moving, and learn when to end an activity and begin a new one
  • Start small, with one peer for one hour. When you notice that your child and her playmate are able to play together appropriately without your help, you can consider longer playdates
  • Let the peer’s parents know what to expect, and invite them to stay for the playdate
  • Offer an incentive at the end of the playdate, like a special snack or a fun activity
  • Be patient. Your child’s confidence will grow with each playdate, so don’t give up
  • Likewise, don’t be discouraged when a parent declines your playdate invitation; keep trying until you find a parent who says “yes”—you will find that parent

One Example of a Structured Playdate Choice board

Some children will need added structure when first playing with friends. Using a visual choice board, like the sample shown here, allows each child some control over what activities they play and in what order. It also gives them a visual timeline of how many more activities they have until the playdate is over.

Play Date poster with balloons to hold pictures of activities that children on a play date can choose to do. Along the bottom are circles to place the activities in the order the children choose. On the left are pictures of the children who will be playing.Have pictures of friends (if possible) and activities ready so board can be set up quickly. Pick a safe place to store all your photos.

poster of play date visual with balloons in the middle. In each balloon is a picture of a play date activity such as blocks. The pictures are velcroed in each balloon. Along the bottom are circles numbered 1 through 5.Put the pictures of the activities that you have prepared and are ready and able to do on the balloons, there should be more choices than slots on the schedule.

Playdate poster with the balloons in the middle.When the playdate starts, have the children take turns picking an activity to add to the schedule along the bottom.