Increasing Social Skills Through Playdates

Most parents recognize when a child with ASD may have some deficits in social skills.  Hosting playdates or participating in activities where your child can be around other children is a great start, but, unfortunately, simply being around other children often isn’t enough.  This is because children on the autism spectrum don’t typically learn by observation, the way many other children do.  If you’re contacting other parents to schedule play dates, that’s great!  You’re on the right track.  You will likely just need to structure it a bit more, so that your child can reap the greatest benefit from the social interaction.

We already had a blog post on planning for the playdate in general.  Today, I want to cover what specific skills you may want to think about incorporating and how you might do that.  Even though you may want to skip to your child having full conversations and jumping into group games with peers at a park, social skills build upon one another and often need to be broken down.  Of course it depends on your child’s skill level, but the following are some ideas.  These skills are gathered from the Verbal Behavior Milestones Assessment and Placement Program (VB‐MAPP; Sundberg, 2008) and the Vineland Adaptive Behavior Scales, Third Edition (Vineland-3; Sparrow, Cicchetti, & Saulnier, 2016), as well as many years of running playdates.

Skills

If you’re just beginning to work on social interaction and your child doesn’t show any interest in other kids, you may want to focus on skills like:

Level 1:
  • Making eye contact with a peer
  • Accepting a toy from a peer
  • Handing a toy to a peer
  • Engaging in parallel play (playing with the same toy or activity but not necessarily interacting with the peer)
  • Following a peer or imitating their behavior

If your child is ready for a bit more, you may want to focus on skills like:

Level 2:
  • Responding to peer greetings
  • Participating in simple group games (e.g., Ring Around the Rosie)
  • Asking peer for desired items or actions (e.g., “Can I have the blue crayon?” or “My turn”)
  • Responding to peer’s requests by delivering item peer asked for
  • Participating in social play with peers (playing the same thing together)

If your child has the above skills down and needs to work on the very beginnings of conversation, you may want to focus on skills like:

Level 3:
  • Cooperative play (working together with peer)
  • Asking peer WH questions (e.g., “What are you making?)
  • Responding to peers WH questions
  • Making a similar statement in response to peer’s statement (e.g., “I like dancing”- “I like singing” or “I’m 6 years old”- “I’m 6 years old, too”)
  • Participating in pretend social play with peers
  • Having conversation with peer (making at least 4 exchanges)

Your child may be able to respond to and ask questions of others, but exchanges may still seem a bit awkward.  If this is the case, your child may need to work on things like:

  Level 4:
  • Compliments
  • Responding to peer saying they don’t like something or to stop it
  • Responding to body language
  • Maintaining appropriate personal space
  • Following rules

Teaching the Skills and Setting Up:

In teaching all of these skills you may want to think about the following things:

  1. Creating multiple opportunities for these goals
  2. Your child is likely going to need a lot of repetition to learn these skills.  Just because it’s a playdate, doesn’t mean you can’t set up several opportunities to practice in as natural a way as possible.  If you have a cooperative peer, you can often ask them to repeat their question or direct them to ask your child for something.

  3. It always helps to have reinforcement for the peer, as well
  4. You can make this something more natural like getting to pick the next activity or getting a sticker.  You may want to think about creating some kind of contingency where if both kids earn x number of stickers, they can get to do a special activity at the end.

  5. Make sure the kids are talking to each other- not just you.
  6. It’s common for children (both your child and the peer) to turn and ask the adult when they want something.  If you’re working on goals where the kids need to talk to each other, this may happen.  If it does, direct them to the other child.  It’s important that they learn to talk to one another, not through you. I’ve been in a lot of playdates where the peer may say, “Does she like _____?” (talking about the child with ASD) and I’ll say, “Why don’t you ask her?”.

  7. You may need to work on these skills in a more structured setting first.
  8. A playdate is a great way to generalize your child’s skills, but is not the best time to work on a brand new skill.  There’s a lot going on and you will have your hands full keeping both kids happy and ensuring a productive playdate.  I would try to work on most of these skills in a more structured setting with an adult first.  It’s often easier for kids to respond to you than with peers, and you’ll want to set them up for success.

  9. Think about your prompting
  10. Your child will likely need a bit of prompting during the playdate, which is great.  The whole purpose for he playdate is to practice these skills with a peer, but in a slightly more controlled environment.  Prompting can move from direct to indirect.  With some goals, you may need to start by telling your child exactly what to say.  Eventually, you can move to more indirect prompts, like, “Hmm…I wonder what color Hayley wants” to encourage your child to ask Hayley, “What color do you want?”

  11. Try making a schedule at the beginning
  12. You should already have ideas planned and the materials ready to go, but you can have the kids help you create a loose schedule at the beginning of the playdate. You can give them ideas and have kids pick the order at the beginning.  They can take turns picking an activity if they don’t want to do the same things. This will also help prepare your child for what’s coming next. This can be as simple as writing it down on a piece of paper or on a dry erase board if you have one.

Playdates can be such a wonderful way to ensure your child is getting access to social interaction and excellent preparation for when they are around bigger groups of kids, like at school.  If you haven’t already, you may want to check out our blog on planning the playdate, where you can also download our free playdate planner.  I would take some time to think about which of these skills you want to work on and what kinds of situations you can set up to work on them.  I would start with just a few and go from there.  If you’re unsure how this is going to go, you may want to take the first playdate to observe where your child may need some extra help, so you can be prepared for next time.  It likely won’t go perfectly at first, but just remember, it’s all about practice.

References:

Sparrow, S.S., Cicchetti, D.V., & Saulnier, C.A. (2016) Vineland Adaptive Behavior Scales, Third Edition (Vineland-3). San Antonio, TX: Pearson.

Sundberg, M. L. (2008) Verbal behavior milestones assessment and placement program: The VB-MAPP. Concord, CA: AVB Press.