You’ve probably watched your child on the autism spectrum in a social situation – on the outskirts, wanting to make friends but struggling with how to do it, and yet again singled out. It’s an extremely difficult and emotional moment that repeats with seemingly every peer-to-peer interaction.
Fortunately, along with your child’s therapists focusing on social skills, with some knowledge and practice, you too can encourage their social development.
Play is how children communicate. Even if your child on the autism spectrum plays a little differently from their peers, it’s through that play that we can learn from them and teach social skills to them. Knowing that, utilize play at home to hone these skills and more easily join in those social situations.
1. They Promote Rules of Conversation
Many children with ASD (autism spectrum disorder) have a difficult time initiating interaction. If your child faces this challenge regularly, make a stack of cards with potential conversation starters. Then, play interactions out with your child. Pretend you are someone your child would like to establish a friendship with, and use the cards to help direct conversation.
Once that interaction is taking place, they may continue to struggle to communicate effectively. That is because taking turns is a learned skill, and that includes taking turns in conversation. Yet, the skill is vital to these conversations, along with sharing and working with others.
To help with this, play a game that involves taking turns. Kick or throw a ball back and forth, reminding the child consistently whose turn it is. Try Hide and Seek for an active game with defined roles. Most board games also encourage taking turns and work especially well with older children.
2. They Enable a Child to Learn the Emotions of Others
Facial expressions and other non-verbal cues can be difficult for those on the autism spectrum disorder to interpret. Yet, they are a key component in conversing and interacting with others. For that reason, practicing making sense of these expressions and making their own expressions can improve a child’s communication skills.
Try making it a game: go back and forth with your child, practicing expressing a variety of emotions. If you think your child is up for it, try a guessing game where they must guess the emotion you are expressing.
For some children on the autism spectrum, explaining what the different parts of the face do to express an emotion might be easier to understand. Draw a picture of a face that is angry, for instance, and explain all the parts: what are the eyes doing? How does the mouth look? What does their voice sound like?
3. They Encourage a Child to Play Pretend
On playdates, in school, and in most other social situations, many young children veer towards pretend play when with each other. If your child isn’t quite running around with a cape shouting “Spiderman” or rocking baby dolls to sleep, making pretend play into a game could help prepare them for peer-to-peer interactions while simultaneously reinforcing social skills.
Model how to play imaginatively by having two action figures interacting together, giving a favorite stuffed toy a check-up, or pretending to parent a doll. The activities will be in the child’s comfort zone, play, while showing the child how to communicate appropriately.
Playing charades is another game that can review reading expressions, pretend play, and social intelligence. This may work well with older children, and is a good way to connect while strengthening skills.
4. They Teach Children How to Consider the Other Person
If your child struggles with recognizing personal space, or becomes physical with others at times due to sensory issues, a game might help teach them the appropriate behaviors. Teach them visually what personal space looks like. Use sidewalk chalk, hula hoops, or even sticks and give them a clear example of your personal space versus theirs. Feel free to invite them into your space to show them sometimes this is appropriate (i.e. giving a hug).
Everyone wants to have successful interactions with others and feel included, those with ASD and those without an autism diagnosis. By building and reinforcing these pivotal skills, both at therapy and at home, can lead a child to a stronger foundation in communication and more success socially.
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