Your typically developing child may have an abundance of friends, with frequent offers for playdates and invitations to birthday parties when it’s safe to socialize in person.

But maybe you’ve noticed a certain classmate or family friend with social challenges is invited to fewer gatherings and doesn’t have as many opportunities to play with peers. Encouraging a friendship between your child and another who has social challenges may benefit both children.

Positive peer relationships influence all kids’ self-esteem and happiness levels, and they may lower the risk of depression and anxiety. Children who are more accepting of others with social challenges, such as behavioral problems, impulsivity or autism spectrum disorder, tend to become kinder, more empathetic people.

Childhood relationships help to influence the quality of friendships later in life, as well as romantic and work relationships. If you provide opportunities for your child to spend time with someone who is different from them, it may offer both children positive new experiences and perspectives, as well as a rewarding friendship.

No matter the social challenge, there are ways you can help both children successfully enjoy some playtime together – and create lasting friendships.

Try these nine ideas:

  • Do your research. Talk to the parent to find a few activities their child enjoys. Try to find at least two or three interests they have in common with your child, whether it’s playing Legos, making crafts, riding bikes or something else. Also ask the other parent if there is anything specific that helps social gatherings go smoothly for their child.
  • Talk about expectations with your child(ren). Review rules about sharing, kindness and how to respond unexpected behaviors.
  • Make it fun. Don’t test new activities; everyone is more likely to have a good time if you choose something both children enjoy doing.
  • Plan ahead. Map out simple activities for the children to keep them busy. Don’t leave much unstructured time when they’re together for the first time. Prepare for a snack break in case the kids get tired of what they’re doing and need to shift gears.
  • Bring a toy. Let the other parent know their child is welcome to bring something from home to your house, as long as both children can play with it during their get-together. This can help make connections by sharing common interests.
  • Limit distractions. Put away any other toys or games you don’t want out during the playdate.
  • Invite the parent. Ask the mom, dad or caregiver to stay for the playdate. The two of you can chat off to the side while keeping an eye on the kids. If need be, the other parent may want to call over their child to make constructive comments (out of earshot of your child), if they need prompting or advice to keep the social interaction running smoothly.
  • Keep it short. At first, get the kids together for no more than an hour or two. Aim to end the playdate on a high note, while they’re getting along.
  • After the playdate, take some time to talk about how things went. Ask about their favorite part and process any difficulties to plan for how to better manage them in the future.

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As a parent, having a child with an autism spectrum disorder brings some unique challenges in everyday life. The more we talk about autism and bring awareness to it, the more it helps us learn how to interact with these children and become advocates. The more we know, the more we can advocate.