Play skills and social skills should be a part of an ABA treatment plan and are absolutely important for children with autism or I/DD. Many parents eagerly place their child in social groups, play dates, or insist that their child participates in group activities. These are WONDERFUL if your child is ready, but can be difficult and stressful if they are placed in these groups too soon. First, ask yourself these questions to determine if your child is ready for play dates and social groups:
Does my child allow peers into his space and allow peers to touch his toys?
Is my child able to successfully sit and engage in leisure activities?
Does my child have an interest in toys and activities?
Is my child able to engage in parallel play and turn taking?
If you responded “no”, work with your child’s therapist to write specific play date goals into the treatment plan. If your child engages in frequent, aggressive behaviors or stereotypic behaviors, they may also struggle in play groups.
Simply placing a child in a group environment is NOT social training or an effective play date. Our goal is to teach a child successfully without having to constantly do “damage control.” If a child has a history of negative experiences with peers, your child may be very averse towards peers. Imagine how you would feel if EVERY time you walked into Kroger people bumped into you, yelled and screamed around you, and followed you around asking questions and stealing your shopping cart. If this was your experience every single time, you would most likely avoid grocery shopping. It is our goal to turn that aversive peer experience into an experience that is motivating and positive.
When I first begin play dates and social skills groups with early learners, I like to start with a peer model or sibling. Once certain goals have been mastered with a peer model, we can begin generalizing skills to other peers and environments. Remember, we want successful peer interactions…even if our play date is 8 minutes long! We can work up to that 30 minute karate class, the birthday party at the zoo, or some of the other amazing social groups Knoxville has to offer!
Remember, appropriate play skills includes more than sharing and sitting next to a peer. Other goals may include:
Keeping hands to self
Greetings, initiating and reciprocating conversations, staying on topic
Responding and asking questions
Social manners (i.e. asking “what happened” if someone is crying or very excited)
Problem solving with peers
Elizabeth Gagliardi, MSSW, BCBA