The playground represents a time for having fun where children laugh, play, run around, and form friendships. However, for a child with autism the playground is like being lost in a foreign country without knowing the language. The playground is chaotic, unpredictable, loud, and over-stimulating.
We often see children with autism walking the perimeter of the playground to avoid the chaos or forming a friendship with an adult because they are more predictable than a peer. The playground is not a fun or happy place for a child with autism; in fact, it is a place to avoid.
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 and watched for patterns in how they do it. During my years of research I discovered that children socialize through play. It is how children form friendships.
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So, where do socialization and friendship formation happen? It happens on the playground by playing and interacting with one another. I have witnessed how children will naturally gravitate towards one another and just join in each other’s play. I have also seen how children with autism struggle on the playground because their peers are quick, spontaneous, and move from play activity to play activity. Children with autism find it hard to form friendships with these peers because they prefer structure and predictability.
I often see social skills being 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 and thus makes it difficult for children to generalize those play and social skills to the playground environment where it is chaotic and unpredictable.
I have also observed many teachers teaching social scripts that are counter intuitive 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 play. When we teach a child an unnatural play script we are teaching them to stand out from their peers.
Last, rehearsing social skills in a 1:1 setting with an adult is unrealistic of how children play. Children are quick, talk fast, and use “kid slang” when chatting with one another. I have seen children with autism have a hard time talking with their peers because they have been taught social skills from an adult. They often don’t talk like their peers and have a hard time processing and understanding what their peers are saying. This leads them to talk and become friends with adults on the playground as opposed to their peers.
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 his/her 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 how to play games that are usually played on the playground like chase, four square, hop scotch, etc.
Take pictures of your child playing on the school playground and share those pictures with school. Make a social story about the playground. By becoming familiar with the playground when there are no children around, your child will begin to feel comfortable and confident playing there. Advance exposure is key to your child’s playground success.
2. 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 on how to teach your child what his/her peers are interested in and a way to expose them to age appropriate playground culture.
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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 him/her 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 his/her peers, the more confident he/she will become in engaging and interacting with those peers.
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 for a child with autism he/she needs to understand the exact definition of what the word “friend” 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 has an understanding of what a friend is, it will be much easier for him/her to identify and form friendships with his/her peers.
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, a child with autism can learn how to confidently navigate the playground and connect and develop lasting friendships with his/her peers.
This article was featured in Issue 93 – ASD Advice for Today and Tomorrow