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Helping Your Autistic Child Make Friends on the Playground

April 23, 2024

The playground represents a time for having fun and forming friendships. However, for a child with autism, the playground is chaotic, unpredictable, loud, and over-stimulating.

We often see children with autism walking away from the park to avoid chaos. So, how can we help autistic children make friends on the playground? Let’s learn all about it.

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Research on autism and making friends

Much of my research has taken place on the playground. For over 11 years, I have observed thousands of children with and without a diagnosis play. I watched for patterns in how they do it. During my years of research, I discovered that children socialize through play. 

I have witnessed how children will naturally gravitate towards one another and just join in each other’s playtime. I have also seen how children with autism struggle on the playground. Their peers are quick, spontaneous, and move from one play activity to another, while they prefer structure and stability.

I often see social skills taught in a 1:1 environment with an adult and few peer models. By teaching social skills in a 1:1 environment, we are setting children with autism up to fail socially on the playground.

Teaching social skills in a 1:1 environment is controlled and predictable. Because of that, it makes it difficult for children to generalize social skills to the playground environment.

I have also observed many teachers teaching social scripts for making friends that are counterintuitive to how children naturally play.

For example, I have seen children being taught the script to “Tap a friend on the shoulder and ask them to play.” Children do not run around the playground tapping each other on the shoulder asking each other to play. They just spontaneously join in the play.

I have seen children with autism have a hard time talking with their peers because they have been taught social skills by an adult. They often don’t talk like their peers and have a hard time processing and understanding what their peers are saying.

Because of that, it’s important that we teach autistic children how to form friendships naturally among children their age.

How to help autistic children make friends  on the playground

How should we teach social skills and forming friendships to children with autism? We teach them in their natural play environment, which is the playground. With a lot of observing, planning, pre-teaching, exposure, and rehearsal, it can be done successfully.

I have helped many children with autism form lasting friendships, and it was all taught on the playground. Below are five strategies I use in my own private practice that I have found to be extremely effective when teaching children with autism how to socialize and form friendships.

1. Explore your school playground

Take your child to their school playground when no children are around. This could be after school, on the weekend, or during the summer before school begins.

Let your child explore the playground by swinging, going down the slides, or playing in the field. I also encourage you to teach your child to play games usually played on the playground, like chase, four square, hopscotch, etc.

A young boy climbing and exploring the playground https://www.autismparentingmagazine.com/make-friends-on-playground-with-asd/

Take pictures of your child playing on the school playground and share those pictures with the school. Make a social story about the playground.

By becoming familiar with the playground when no children are around, your child will begin to feel comfortable and confident playing there. Advance exposure is key to your child’s playground success.

2. Find age-appropriate interests

Find the age-appropriate topics, interests, and games that are happening on the playground. Then, at home or in therapy sessions, pre-teach those topics and games to your child.

You can often find YouTube videos about topics or games of interest and have your child watch those videos. Talk about those videos, role-play, and act them out.

This is a fun way to teach your child what their peers are interested in and a way to expose them to age-appropriate playground culture.

3. Find children with similar interests

Ask your child’s teacher or aide which peers have similar interests as your child and would make the best playmates. If your child likes to swing, we wouldn’t want to pair them with a child who plays soccer at recess.

You want to make sure your child is around other children who have similar interests, as it is through those similar interests that friendships are formed.

Think about your personal friendships. Are you friends with people who share common interests with you? The same goes for your child.

4. Schedule playdates

Once you have identified peers who might be good playmates for your child, set up playdates with them. In the beginning, make the playdates short and have structured activities planned.

Remember, the more exposure your child has with their peers, the more confident they will become in engaging and interacting with them.

5. Teach the meaning of the word “friends”

When I ask a client, “Who are your friends?” They will often name every kid in their class. I explain to them that every child in their class is not their friend and I teach them the difference between a friend and an acquaintance.

The word “friend” is used too loosely, and a child with autism needs to understand the exact definition of what the word means. Sit down with your child and talk about what a friend versus an acquaintance is.

Friends share similar interests, are kind to your child, talk to your child, play with your child, have fun with your child, etc. Once your child understands what a friend is, it will be much easier for them to identify and form friendships with their peers.


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Autistic playground issues can be managed

The playground can be an intimidating place for children with autism. However, the playground is an important place because it teaches kids how to socialize and develop friendships with their peers.

With the appropriate guidance, exposure, rehearsal, and structure, children with autism can learn how to confidently navigate the playground and connect and develop lasting friendships with their peers.

This article was featured in Issue 93 – ASD Advice for Today and Tomorrow

FAQs

Q: What features make a playground “autism-friendly”?

A: An autism-friendly playground typically incorporates sensory-friendly design elements like quiet areas, inclusive play equipment, and clear signage. These features aim to create a supportive environment that caters to the sensory needs and social preferences of children on the autism spectrum, promoting inclusion and enjoyment for all.

Q: How can social scripts help in making friends?

A: Social scripts for making friends help people with autism by giving them step-by-step instructions for talking to others and forming friendships. By practicing these scripts, they gain confidence and learn how to interact in social situations more easily.

Q: How do autistic people make friends?

A: Autistic individuals often navigate friendship differently, sometimes preferring structured activities or shared interests as a basis for connections. Building friendships may involve patience, understanding, and finding common ground that respects their unique communication styles and preferences.

Q: How do you make friends at school with autism?

A: Making friends at school with autism can involve finding common interests, joining clubs or activities, and being open to socializing in smaller groups. It’s also helpful to practice social skills and be patient, understanding that forming friendships may take time.

References

Harris, K., Rosinski, P., Wood-Nartker, J. et al. Developing Inclusive Playgrounds That Welcome All Children—Including Those with Autism. Rev J Autism Dev Disord (2022). https://doi.org/10.1007/s40489-022-00345-3 

Qin Wu, Chenmei Yu, Yanjun Chen, Jiayu Yao, Xi Wu, Xiaolan Peng, and Teng Han. 2020. Squeeze the Ball: Designing an Interactive Playground towards Aiding Social Activities of Children with Low-Function Autism. In Proceedings of the 2020 CHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems (CHI ’20). Association for Computing Machinery, New York, NY, USA, 1–14. https://doi.org/10.1145/3313831.3376888 

Lang, R., Muharib, R., Lessner, P. et al. Increasing Play and Decreasing Stereotypy for Children with Autism on a Playground. Adv Neurodev Disord 4, 146–154 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1007/s41252-020-00150-1 

Gilmore, S., Frederick, L. K., Santillan, L., & Locke, J. (2019). The games they play: Observations of children with autism spectrum disorder on the school playground. Autism, 23(6), 1343-1353. https://doi.org/10.1177/1362361318811987 

Santillan, L., Frederick, L., Gilmore, S., & Locke, J. (2019). Brief Report: Examining the Association Between Classroom Social Network Inclusion and Playground Peer Engagement Among Children With Autism Spectrum Disorders. Focus on Autism and Other Developmental Disabilities, 34(2), 91-96. https://doi.org/10.1177/1088357619838275 

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