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Spontaneous Social Interactions in School-Aged Children
with Autism Spectrum Disorder
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In the last section, we discussed doctors and long waits. This included flexibility, appointments, and during sessions.
Jocelyn and Kurt, from the last section, were interested in suggestions for Simple Play for Toddlers and Preschoolers. Jocelyn asked, "Do you have any ideas for specific games or toys we can use to encourage Ephraim to play with the other children?" I stated, "I have found that four techniques in particular can encourage playful socialization for toddlers and preschoolers. These include playing with toys, toy match, borrowing and tackling spontaneous play."
What techniques have you found that are effective in teaching autistic toddlers and preschoolers how to play?
4 Techniques for Simple Play
♦ Technique 1 - Playing with Toys
I stated to Kurt, "First, let’s discuss playing with toys. If Ephraim is just starting preschool, chances are his peers are spending most of their free time indoors playing with toys. This is when they learn how to take turns and share toys. They engage in simple little play routines—most preschools have a playhouse, sand toys, dress-up clothes, and a variety of other activities that appeal to the imagination. This is probably when you will want Ephraim to learn to play appropriately with toys and follow the rules of a simple game, to take turns and share with other children, and to engage in pretend play."
Would you agree that the value of learning play in preschool is to learn to follow rules and share?
♦ Technique 2 - Toy Match
I found it helpful to continue to Kurt, "One thing you can do is to buy and donate toys to the school that match those that Ephraim already likes and knows how to play with. This way, you can be sure that Ephraim will enjoy the activity and will use it appropriately. If Ephraim has pretty good verbal skills and is the only one who knows how to play a new game, not only will he know how to use the toy, but he can even take a leadership role and explain the rules to the other children. Even if Ephraim doesn’t have any games at home that he’s especially good at, consider taking him to the toy store and buying a few that he seems to take an interest in."
Jocelyn stated, "Ephraim still likes to play with some of the toys he's had since he was a baby. Should we continue to let him play with these?" I stated, "You will probably want to make sure that Ephraim's toys are age-appropriate. If Ephraim takes an interest in an infant toy in a store, rather than buying it for him, try to figure out what he likes about it. Then try to find an age-appropriate toy that will provide that same type of sensory pleasure.
"You can then take the chosen toy home first and practice playing with it with Ephraim, then send an extra one to school, once Ephraim is able to play with it pretty well at home. Not only will this help Ephraim, but in these times of tight educational budgets, the school will really appreciate it. Plus, kids tend to gravitate toward brand-new toys and games, so you may discover that having Ephraim walk in with something new makes him popular immediately."
Have you found as I have, that it is helpful to encourage the parents of autistic children to send extra toys to their children's schools to encourage playing with others?
♦ Technique 3 - Borrowing
I continued, "Similarly, most schools will allow you to borrow toys overnight to use as teaching tools, so you can borrow things that many of the kids are playing with at school and practice using them appropriately at home. You can also use these times to teach Ephraim the right things to say when he is playing, like 'My turn,' 'Your turn,' and 'Good game.' Keep in mind that it may take a fair bit of time and practice for Ephraim to learn to use each toy appropriately. It’s best if you can start by finding a toy he likes.
Even if Ephraim wants to play with it in a repetitive way, have him make one or two appropriate responses before letting him play with it the way he wants. Gradually help him play with it appropriately for longer periods of time, holding off the reward of playing with it repetitively until Ephraim can play appropriately long enough to play with a peer."
♦ Technique 4 - Tackling Spontaneous Play
Kurt stated, "But all of this is pre-planned. What about when we can't plan a specific play scenario for Ephraim? How will he learn to play without being guided to it?"
I stated, "Since a lot of play is spontaneous and can’t be pre-taught, Ephraim needs to learn to look at the other kids and imitate what they’re doing. You can practice this at home by getting out toys, playing with them, and then having Ephraim imitate what you just did. You can also practice with another child, a friend, a cousin, or a sibling. Point out what the other child is doing and suggest Ephraim do the same. For example, if the other child is putting pieces in Mr. Potato Head, you can say things to Ephraim with autism like, "Look, that little girl put eyes on hers. Can you put eyes on yours?"
This teaches Ephraim to observe and imitate what someone else is doing. At Ephraim’s school, you might coordinate with his aide or teacher to make sure someone is prompting him similarly during free play activities, to ensure that he continues to imitate others and to play appropriately. You can work on pretend play at home, too. With pretend play, it’s usually nice to have a natural reward and a common activity to start with.
For example, I once worked with a little girl named Susie who seemed to have no interest in anything but food. The aide decided to teach Susie to pretend to have one of her plastic animal toys take a bite of the food before Susie did. The aide prompted Susie to give the toy a pretend-bite before letting her eat, a natural reward. Within a few minutes, she was offering the animals a bite without any prompts. This soon led to spontaneous feeding of the animal toys."
Would you agree that one method to tackling spontaneous play is to build natural rewards into playtime?
In this section, we discussed Simple Play for Toddlers and Preschoolers. This included playing with toys, toy match, borrowing and tackling spontaneous play.
In the next section, we will discuss Four Tips for Free Time at School. These will include rules, lining up with a friend, developing structured activities and fixation games.
Peer-Reviewed Journal Article References:
Birmingham, E., Johnston, K. H. S., & Iarocci, G. (2017). Spontaneous gaze selection and following during naturalistic social interactions in school-aged children and adolescents with autism spectrum disorder. Canadian Journal of Experimental Psychology/Revue canadienne de psychologie expérimentale, 71(3), 243–257.
Hiles Howard, A. R., Lindaman, S., Copeland, R., & Cross, D. R. (2018). Theraplay impact on parents and children with autism spectrum disorder: Improvements in affect, joint attention, and social cooperation. International Journal of Play Therapy, 27(1), 56–68.
Peterson, C., Slaughter, V., Moore, C., & Wellman, H. M. (2016). Peer social skills and theory of mind in children with autism, deafness, or typical development. Developmental Psychology, 52(1), 46–57.
What are four techniques to aid in Simple Play for Toddlers and Preschoolers?
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