Cincinnati Family Magazine

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April 24, 2024

Tips for Special Needs Playdates

While they may take a little more planning and patience, it is well worth the efforts for everyone involved. Here are some tips for hosting a playdate with kids with disabilities.

Playdates are an important part of childhood. They offer time for kids to interact socially without the structure of school or extracurricular activities. They also help kids learn to share, socialize and play freely while still having support from their parents as needed. Kids with special needs are no exception and benefit from playdates as much as their peers.

Be Open

Our natural reaction may be to avoid talking about any disabilities a child may have, but it is better to address any questions or concerns beforehand so everyone is more comfortable and knows what to expect. Kerbe Shephard, OTR/L, occupational therapist and local mom who gave birth last summer to a baby girl with Down Syndrome — she named her “Fiona” after the Cincinnati Zoo hippo that played a special role in her child’s birth story — explains that prior to playdates, she explains her baby’s special needs to her 4-year-old son, Bryce.

“I am always happy to answer questions about my daughter’s Down Syndrome diagnosis, but I usually don’t communicate about it just for fun,” Shephard says. “My belief is she is who she is and is loveable anyway! As she gets older, I’m sure this will change, as play skills will likely be underdeveloped compared to peers.”

Talk to your children openly about differences they may have with their friends. Explain that just because others may seem different or express their joy differently, it doesn’t mean they don’t enjoy playdates or making new friends as well. Check in with the other parents prior to the playdate about whether there are any food allergies or restrictions.

Be Patient

Try to understand that kids may have different reactions to situations and things may not go exactly as expected, and that it may take some time for kids with special needs to warm up to the situation. Some children with special needs may prefer to participate in parallel play — when kids play beside each other, but do not interact with one another.

Be Inclusive and Understanding

It is also important to note that kids with disabilities or special needs are just like anyone else; they want to interact with friends and be loved and appreciated.

“I have always pointed out someone with an obvious special ability to my kiddos, and explained how neat it is that they have their unique ability,” says Holly Young, owner of Puzzle Pieces – A Sensory Sensation in Montgomery and mom of four including twins, one who is diagnosed with Autism.

“I talk about how important it is to be friendly and helpful, and to also treat others as they would anyone else — with respect and kindness,” she continues.

Parenting is not easy and we all struggle with different challenges when it comes to our children. Ask the parent if they need help with anything prior to the playdate.

“Asking what they may need ahead of time or just being observant to their struggles,” says Young.

Be patient and understanding. The other parent may be over whelmed or tired, and it may have been challenging to get there.


Cincinnati Art Museum Sensory Saturdays
953 Eden Park Drive, Cincinnati, Oh
Fourth Saturdays, 9:30 – 11 a.m.; designed for families with kids who have autism or other developmental disabilities to explore the museum’s galleries in a less crowded environment.

Heritage Bank Center, 100 Broadway, Cincinnati, Oh
Offers sensory games throughout the season that have decreased auditory and visual stimulation for those who have sensory sensitivities.

Cody Clark Magic
Diagnosed with autism at a young age, Cody Clark now creates a truly unique style of magic by blending stories with a passion for theatre, stand-up comedy, country music and autism advocacy. He performs sensory-friendly magic shows for students, library patrons, companies, community parties and more.

Sensory Playgrounds

AJ Jolly Park; 1501 Race Track Road, Alexandria, Ky

AJ Jolly now has a playground designed for kids with all abilities located at 1501 Race Track Road in Alexandria with equipment for children of all abilities, ages 5 to 12 featuring a main play structure with two slides, a transfer station and sensory components. 

Common Ground Playground at Makino Park; 6100 Kopfler Court, Mason, Oh
This all-inclusive playground is designed to encourage kids and grown-ups of all abilities to play together helping to build confidence, self-esteem, interpersonal relationships and motor skills.

West Fork Playground; 4764 W Fork Rd, Cincinnati, Oh
Accessibility to all ages and abilities with zones that have been purposefully planned and built to keep the attention of kids for longer than 30 minutes – and to meet the needs of all children.

Inwood Park Playground; 2308 Vine St, Cincinnati, Oh

Located at the upper part of the park on Wellington Place, adjacent to the recently constructed shelter, parking lot, and loop walkway, this park serves children of all ages featuring two “tot”-sized houses with elements for small children, musical instruments, colorful ground-level panels, and a variety of swing types including a fully accessible “ADA” swing.


About the Author

Sara Lyons

Sarah Lyons is a midwestern mom of six children, including 2-year-old triplets.