Written by: Dr. Rick Manista, Psy.D.
An Autism diagnosis can have various challenges for children. Social skills is one of the main deficits children with autism can experience. They have a difficulty reading and interpreting social cues. This can cause them to withdraw from social situations or engage in inappropriate behavior. One of the hardest times of the day is recess. Recess is the time where most social opportunities take place. Here are some ideas to help improve social skills during this time.
Children are Motivated
Locke, Shih, Kreutzmann and Kasari (2015) conducted a study comparing the playground habits between children with and without autism spectrum disorder. The results indicated that children with autism did spend majority of their time engaging with another student. Though the students may not be communicating and relating to each other on the same level, there is motivation from the students with autism to socialize.
Four Steps of Communication
One important strategy to teach students is the four steps of communication. Created by Winner (2000), these steps break down social interaction more concretely for students. Step 1 is to be aware of others and our own thoughts. This is the time we want to make sure we are on the same topic of conversation. Step 2 is to make a physical presence known. We have to approach the group or wave to initiate conversation. We just cannot get too close that would invade their personal space! Step 3 is to use our eyes to read others emotions and monitor how the person is reacting. The final step is use language to convey our thoughts. This can be done by asking questions and sharing thoughts. These steps can help students with their interactions.
Engage teachers and aides
The hardest part about social skills is the students generalizing their skills in different environments. Winner and Crooke (2016) stress the importance of having teachers and aides be apart of the students’ “social team”. Not only do teachers and aides directly observe what is happening on the playground, they can help guide play, reinforce social stories and vocabulary. One of the most important skills to teach children with Autism is observation. When you observe a social cue, you can interpret the most appropriate response. While this can be done in therapy rooms, the playground offers more opportunities for students to observe social cues. Naturally, this skill is difficult for students to do on their own. Having teachers help reinforce the concept of observation to students could improve their social skills.
Pair with Peer Models
Another common strategy is to utilize peer mentors. Higher functioning students can help guide students in need. These students would need to be trained on how to respond to children with Autism and on the nature of the condition. Most schools have a similar model for peers to help others. The one challenge to this strategy is peer pressure: often the mentors might face exclusion and stop helping. Teachers would still need to be closely monitoring in effort to ensure the success of the approach.
Create Structured Activities
Students with Autism tend to work in isolation with repetitive, predictable tasks. There are various activities that can meet their interests and help them socialize. The monkey bars, see saws, and swings often lend to pairs playing together. Alternate activities such as side walk chalk or scavenger hunts are predictable but increase participation. Indoor recess has easier options to structure. Art activities, Lego buildings and board games lend themselves to cooperative play. Another important strategy is to allow the students to bring toys from home. They can use this opportunity to share with others and make potential friendships.
Practice In the Classroom
The classroom and therapy room is a vital place to work on recess goals. This is a time where social skills can be taught and practiced. Teachers can instruct students on games they can play, the rules and expectations of the game, and why people like this game (Lucci, 2019). These are concepts that are hard for children with Autism. Videos showing recess activity and games help students see a clear picture of what will happen. Reinforcement systems in the classroom can motivate students to interact in an appropriate manner. Our goals for students is to feel connected with others during social times. These strategies can help students build successful peer relationships.
Locke, J., Shih, W., Kretzmann, M., & Kasari, C. (2015). Examining playground engagement between elementary school children with and without autism spectrum disorder. Autism, 20(6), 653-662. doi:10.1177/1362361315599468
Lucci, D. (n.d.). Helping students with Asperger's make sense of recess. Retrieved May 11, 2019, from https://www.aane.org/helping-students-aspergers-make-sense-recess/
Winner, M. G. (2000). Inside out: What makes a person with social cognitive deficits tick?: The I LAUGH approach: Asperger syndrome, high-functioning autism, non-verbal learning- disabilities (NLD), pervasive developmental disorder-not otherwise specified (PDD-NOS), hyperlexia. San Jose, CA: Michelle
Garcia Winner. Winner, M., & Crooke, P. (2016, September 21). 9 Strategies to Encourage Generalization of Social Thinking Concepts and Social Skills. Retrieved May 12, 2019, from https://www.socialthinking.com/Articles?name=9
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Dr. Liz Matheis
Dr Liz Matheis and her team specialize in assisting children and their families with Anxiety, Autism, AD/HD, Learning Disabilities and Behavioral Struggles