Social skills for typical children evolve 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 social skills 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 these skills. It is recommended that families look to providers with experience in social skills training specific to autism. Social skills support can be provided in a few environments:
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
Finding Friends In School
School is where children spend the majority of their waking hours, and is therefore an important place to learn and practice social skills.
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. 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. Social interaction can be facilitated in a number of ways, preferably with aides and supervisors trained in the area of social skills for children on the spectrum.
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 -- the child is not allowed to play alone at school and must always find a friend to play with.
It is the child’s responsibility to ask friends to play (prompted or otherwise).
The child must ask friends to play a range of different activities each day.
The child and the friend should play in a wide-range of activities each day (an idea or the friend’s idea)
The child should be taught to sustain play with friends, not with materials, and the child should not be the first to leave an activity.
Understanding the Classroom
If possible, cooperate with your school to allow your ABA (Applied Behavioral Analysis) therapist to observe and work with your child there. The therapist should have experience with your child prior to going to school, so that he/she understands your child’s strengths and weaknesses, and how your child operates.
Observe the classroom. Volunteer to help in the classroom and observe classroom norms and routines.
Children on the spectrum need time to prepare for the social situations. 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, daily schedule, and monthly calendar and refer to them as needed. Add social stories, crafts made at school, etc. Each month is a “fresh start” with a new board.
2. Reinforce Independence and Compliance With Routines.
Go into the school and take pictures of routine activities, such as hanging up coats, 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 friends' names
Turn lists of classmate names into posters and place them around the house–kitchen, bathroom, bedroom, playroom–in a variety of formats, with photos. To practice learning names, start with first names and make them similar to the name tags used in the classroom for printing and seat identification. If the class is also broken into smaller groups, practice sorting the names into class groups. You can also practice by asking questions like, “Who’s at your snack table?”
“Who’s in your class?” Practice memorizing the names.
“Who’s a boy/girl?” Have the child pick a given number of girls and/or boys.
“Who’s in the your group?” Once that is mastered, 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 friends' faces, preferences, etc.
Take pictures of peers and put them up in a visible location on a rotational basis.
Personal photos: Go to school in September and attend special events during the year. Take photos of all the kids all over the school and 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 big in color at a self-serve copy place and post it in your house. 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 observations together. In class, have your child 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 drill: “What does (name) look like?” Have your child state facts about each person such as hair color, eye color, etc.
Knowledge 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 an 8.5” x 11” piece of 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.
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 to 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” or “window corner,” where a number of things might be. Label “Doctor’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 your child 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: “Next to the piano.”
7. Make “activity cards”
Type out the list of potential classroom activities and print out on computer labels. Take an 8.5” x 11” piece of card stock paper, fold it three times, and then cut it into eight 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 the child 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? (Helpful if there is a restriction on number of children allowed to play at any given center or activity)
Also try a matching game in which your child takes an activity card and matches up the names of three 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 and friends cards
Practice, practice, practice! Use the cards to help with asking friends to play, doing an activity, changing play, and leaving play! Practice 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) with 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 Playplace) 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 one hour to three or more hours 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 invitations 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-care” 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. 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.
For children on the spectrum who go to school and then work after hours at home and in social environments, concentrating and taking all the necessary steps to engage with peers can be a lot of work. Just like anyone else, your child may need some down time after a busy day to do a preferred activity to decompress. It is important to allow this every day, preferably at a set time that the child can count on and look forward to after a busy day.