Updated: May 8
During a typical school year, your child likely has plenty of opportunities to interact with similar-aged peers on a daily basis. They might play games with other kids on the playground, practice sharing toys in the classroom, or show a friend their toys during a play date. While your child is away from school and other opportunities they might normally have to interact with similar-aged peers, it may be harder to find times to practice developing social skills, but here are some ways to keep practicing!
Encourage your child’s sibling to take interest in his or her play! Children with ASD frequently play in different ways from children with typical development, such as by spinning toys or lining toys up. Encourage a sibling to watch your child play, and show that they are interested by talking about what they see them doing. For example, if your child is playing with play-doh by repetitively taking pieces and lining them up, a sibling could say, “Wow, that play-doh looks so cool. I have some play-doh too! Yours is blue and mine is green!” and show him or her a similar toy. Encourage your child’s sibling to take part in the play as well. They could start placing pieces of their play-doh in the same line. After a few minutes of taking interest in your child’s play, the sibling can do something different with their play-doh, such as using cookie cutters to create something different and showing it to them.
Help your child practice greeting other people. Have your child’s sibling or familiar adult, such as a speech therapist over telehealth, say “Hi” or “Good morning” to your child when you first see them. Help your child respond by giving them support as needed. Your child may initially need you to model how to wave or prompt them to use picture or vocal communication to say hi. After some practice, your child might not need as much support! Once they greet the person, show them how proud you are by giving them a big hug or other kinds of attention they enjoy.
Help your child practice initiating appropriate interactions with their siblings. Children with ASD frequently have trouble communicating effectively, including communicating when they want someone’s attention or to play with someone. Look out for signs that they might want a sibling’s attention – when you start seeing those signs, help your child initiate interactions by modeling language that they can use.
If you don't have any siblings to help you out, you can use yourself as a teaching tool. When your child is pulling at your arm or screaming to get your attention, tell them to "Wait," then count to 3 and prompt them to gain your attention appropriately. Maybe you want them to tap you on the shoulder instead of pulling your arm, or say "Mommy" instead of screaming. Model this behavior for them and after a little practice, they'll learn what works to get your attention.
RESPONDING TO INTERACTIONS
A sibling can also help your child practice responding to social initiations. Have their sibling initiate a social interaction – this could be holding out a toy, asking for your child to share their toy, giving them a hug, or asking if they want to watch a show together. The sibling may need to help your child to respond. They can help by telling them what to do in the situation, or by modeling what to do, depending on how your child learns best. Encourage the sibling to continue playing with them after they respond with positive, calm interactions. Siblings may need reminders to try their best to go along with the other child’s way of playing, even if it isn’t how they like to play!
If sharing toys is something your child was working on at school or with friends, a sibling can help them work on this as well. Start by asking your child to share their toy with a sibling for just a few seconds, and then have the sibling give the toy back to them right away. Over time, you can gradually increase the amount of time the sibling takes a turn with the toy or shares the toy. If no siblings are available, your child can practice sharing with you (or a puppet if they're getting tired of playing with mom and dad).
Suggest, or encourage your child’s sibling to suggest a play idea that results in a tangible outcome, such as building a castle with Legos or pretending to make dinner with a pretend kitchen set. Give some ideas for playing together and ask for your child’s input to increase their investment in the activity. For example, you or a sibling can say something like: “Let’s make a big house together! Look, I have some Legos here. I’ll start – I have a blue block. I’m putting the blue block here. What color block are you going to build with?”
Having a shared goal will help build your child’s cooperative play skills.
We know that having your child away from his or her peers isn't ideal, but there are lots of things you can teach your child while you're all quarantined together. Recruiting siblings is one option, but you can also be your child's peer and model appropriate play behavior, such as sharing and turn-taking.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Rebecca Murray is a Clinical Supervisor at The Language and Behavior Center. In addition to being a Board Certified Behavior Analyst (BCBA), she holds a Master's degree in Early Childhood Special Education. Her experience in schools and clinics has given her the opportunity to support a lot of children with a diverse range of social skills. Rebecca believes that social skills are a key part of early childhood education, as having stronger social skills can help children access opportunities to practice other types of learning such as language and cognitive skills.