Social skills for typical children come with trial and error on the playgrounds for the variety of unwritten rules in a very social world. For children on the autism spectrum, these skills can be the most abstract and complex concepts for them to learn.
Working with specialists in the area of social skills and social skills groups can be a great way for a child on the spectrum to learn and practice their skills. It is recommended that families look to providers with experience in social skills training specific to autism for their child.
In-home support with flash cards, games, work books and structured play dates
At social skills clinics or play groups
At school with a “lunch buddy” or groups facilitated at school
The remainder of this document attempts to outline ways to incorporate social skills learning in a variety of environments.
Finding Friends In School
Many children on the spectrum seem to get “stuck” in repetitive selection of a few classroom play items and become far more interested in playing solo rather than with peers or making conversation with other classmates. These are often activities that the children feel comfortable with and prefer out of habit.
Every effort should be made to facilitate peer social inclusion including the following “friendship ideas.” These can be facilitated in a number of ways. The most important item to consider are trained aides and supervisors in the area of social skills for children on the spectrum.
First, implementing some “play rules” that are communicated regularly to the child, make peer requirements easier to implement in the classroom.
School is for playing with friends — he is not allowed to play alone at school. He must always find a friend to play with.
It is the child’s responsibility to go ask friends to play (prompted or otherwise).
They must ask friends to play a range of different activities each day.
They must play in a wide-range of activities each day (an idea or the friend’s idea)
They must sustain play with friends, not with materials and he cannot be the first to leave the activity.
Understand What Is Going On In the Classroom
The first and most important step is to obtain an ABA (Applied Behavioral Analysis) trained therapist. This person should have experience with your ASD child prior to going to school so they understand their strengths, weaknesses, and how the child operates.
Observe the classroom. Volunteer to help in the classroom and observe behaviors of the children and routines so you can prepare your child.
Children on the spectrum need time to prepare for the social process. Here are some ideas for helping your child make those first social steps:
1. Create a “My School Wall”
Laminate a colored poster board from the Dollar store and put it up in the kitchen or your child’s bedroom. Change the theme-color each month. Regularly put up the class list, weekly Days 1-5 schedule, & monthly calendar and refer to them daily/as needed. Add social stories, crafts made at school, etc. Each month is a “fresh start” with a new board.
2. Reinforce Independence & Compliance With Routines.
Go into the school and pose and take pictures of your child participating correctly in all routine-related activities such as hanging his/her coat on a hook, standing in line, eating at snack-time, putting toys away at clean-up time, etc. Place the photos on the poster and/or use them for a general discussion of the day’s events, reinforcement, and problem-solving during the year.
3. Getting to Know My Friends’ Names
Make a poster of differently typed lists of class peer names and place the posters and lists all over the house–kitchen, bathroom, bedroom, playroom–in a variety of formats, with photos around it. To practice learning peer names, start with first names only with first names in big print and last names in smaller print the same way name tags are used in the classroom for printing and seat identification. Then, practice class group names like “yellow star,” “blue flower,” etc. Make the object shapes from colored paper and place the list of group names on top. Practice by asking questions like “Who’s at your snack table,” or if different, have more conversations using those names.
“Who’s in your class?” Practice how many names can be remembered. Work at just memorizing the names.
“Who’s a boy/girl?” Have the child pick three girls and/or two boys.
“Who’s in the “yellow star” (or other group name) group?” Also, try asking about other groups.
Go through the alphabet to guess the names that start with a specific letter. “Whose name starts with (letter)?”
Rhyming game: “Whose name rhymes with “bed”? That’s right, Fred! Is Fred’s hair red? No it’s black… ha, ha, ha! Who else has black hair?”
4. Getting to Know My Friends’ Faces, Preferences, etc.
Get a lot of pictures of peers and put them up in a visible location on a rotational basis.
Personal photos: go to school in September and attend all events during the year. Take photos of all the kids all over the school & on the playground, preferably with your child in the photos as well. Use these photos to match up names to faces. Place them on a poster and talk about friends/activities all year.
Class photo: blow it up really big in color at a self-serve copy place. Post the class photo in the kitchen, bathroom, bedroom, play room. Talk about friends from school everyday and anytime you can as you go about the daily business of living in your house. Talk about how lucky your child is to have so many friends, how much fun it is asking them to play, what will they play tomorrow, who will he/she ask to play tomorrow, etc.
Make personal/activity observations together. In class, have him observe other kids and comment on those observations. Ask questions at school that can be followed up at home. For example:
“Look at (name). What color is her hair? Who else has blond/dark/curly/long hair?”
“Look what (name) is doing. She likes to play big blocks. What does (name) like to do?” He/she repeats, “She likes to play big blocks.”
“Who is this?” drill: Practice until your child learns everyone. Point to pictures as you practice.
Memory about friends drill: “What does (name) look like?” Have your child state facts about each person such as hair color, eye color, etc.
Knowledge about friends drill: “What does (name) like to play with?” (ask about anything–just get their thinking going)
5. Make “My Friends” Cards
Type names and print out on computer labels. Take a 8.5” x 11” card stock paper, fold it three times, and then cut it into 8 squares. Put the labels on each square to make “friendship cards.”
Use in a game format to practice things like:
Greetings/partings (“hi, see you later, goodbye”)
Asking a question when we set up a situation “(Name), what are you eating?”
Asking friends to play. Practice saying “(Name), would you like to play with me?” Then combine Name Cards with Activity Cards (see below). Ask, “(Name), would you like to play (activity) with me?”
You can do all kinds of things with “My Friends” cards:
Use a generic game board and roll the dice, then wherever you land, you must turn over a card and ask the other person (other friends) to play, make a comment, etc.
Just turn over the cards and take turns using the name to determine who plays next
6. Explore, Visualize and Memorize the Location Of All the Activities In the Classroom
Get to know all the toys and games that are available for your child to play with in the classroom. Go into the classroom together in half-hour blocks over a period of 1-2 weeks (and later as needed) during lunch break when no one else is in the classroom. Explore the classroom in sections, looking at ALL the materials, talking about what we could do with them, how much fun it would be to play with it, practice asking to play. Divide the room into sections with names like “piano side,” “window corner,” where a number of things might be. Label “Dr.’s Office, “House,” or “Science Center” for bigger single center-based areas.
Take pictures of each of the areas. Make a poster to use as a visual prompt for family discussion and use for play drills.
Type a list of all the possible activities that he/she could engage in. Use for general conversation at home (where, when, what/who did?), for greater visualization, familiarization and recall in identifying where things are in the classroom. For example, Q: “Where are (toys: i.e. the big blocks)?” A: “Over beside the piano.”
7. Make “Activity Cards”
Type out the list of potential classroom activities and print out on computer labels. Take a 8.5” x 11” card stock paper, fold it three times, and then cut it into 8 squares. Put the labels on each square to make “Activity cards.” Use in a game format to practice asking friends to play (a specific activity in the classroom).
Use the same (preferred) peer name and ask that peer to play a number of different activities in order to practice Yes/No responses.
Use a generic game board and after your child rolls the dice, wherever he/she lands, have them turn over a card and ask the other person to play (activity).
Turn over the cards and have your child ask the other person to play an activity. Then, ask your child:
Where is (the activity) in the room?
How many kids can play at one time? (if there is a restriction on number of children allowed to play at any given center or activity)
Also try a Match up game in which your child takes an activity card and matchs up the names of 3 other kids who like to play that activity. Have your child try to look at the other children he/she names that like to play each activity discussed.
8. Role play with Activity/Peer Cards
Practice, practice, practice asking friends to play, playing, changing play, and leaving play! Pratice role playing with school friends with school items and also, school friends with home items. For example: “(Name), do you want to play (activity-at school or at home) w/me?”
9. Arrange Peer Play Dates For Home Early In the Year
Make contacts as early as possible with other parents.
It’s easier to arrange regular playdates if you first go OUT for short, but really neat activities (fun museum, new park, McDonald’s play land) with other classmates and their parents.
Try to have a minimum of 1-2 kids over each week for play dates at home. Start with one child and then build up to a playgroup. Build up the time from 1 hour to 3+ hrs to work on sustained play.
Don’t be shy about asking parents for admission fees if needed for museums or similar places.
Try to arrange a car pool for pick-up and drop-off.
Not everyone issues invites back to their house or to other activities, so quit being disappointed. You DO have to do all the work!
10. Investigate the after-school day care program(s)
Find out what official “after-school” and/or home day care program(s) are available for your child’s class and other same grade-level kids.
Make arrangements with parents of your child’s friends to pick up kids from the day care. Take the kids home or out for play-dates/groups. Then, you need to bring them back.
Actively participate on-site in the after-school day care program — Contact the day care and ask if you can participate on-site in their program. Day cares welcome volunteers with open arms. Just arrange to bring your child with you. There may be a regular open spot available. If not, regularly attending kids usually give a few days’ notice if they aren’t coming to the after-school program. Make arrangements to call weekly to see what’s available. You do have to make yourself useful if they are going to make the extra effort to include you and your child. Do structured/planned activities with smaller groups in another room, the gym, and/or the playground such as songs, talking activities, and “free play”. Use day care materials or arrange to bring in your own. You will be supervised.
An Important Closing Note
For children on the spectrum that go to school and work after hours at home and in social environments it can be a lot of work on concentrating and all the necessary steps. Just like anyone after a busy day, your child may need some “down time” after a busy day to do a favorite or preferred activity to decompress from the busy day.
It is important to schedule and allow for a favorite activity for your child every day. It is should be a set time that they can count on and look forward to after a busy day.