Summertime is fun time for most children. School routines give way to relaxation, perhaps at summer day or sleep away camp – and there’s no studying. While most typically developing children welcome this, it can become problematic for children with autism spectrum disorders (ASDs). That’s why Westchester Jewish Community Services (WJCS) encourages reinforcing skills learned during the academic year.
A core challenge for children with autism spectrum disorders is the lack of social reciprocity and understanding the nuances of social interactions. This includes making eye contact, emotional regulation, play and conversational skills. To address these challenges, many individuals with ASDs get countless therapies at school, home, and in the community to try to help them develop age-appropriate skills. Without ongoing reinforcement of social skills, many children will quickly lose what they have achieved.
One of the most effective methods of teaching social skills is therapeutic social skills groups. Recognizing the important role that family members play in developing and reinforcing social skills, WJCS runs parent groups concurrently with our therapeutic social skills groups during the school year and in summer refresher groups. In addition to providing parents support, each parent group teaches skills children are learning in group with the expectation that they reinforce the skills at home and in the community. Both the children and parents involved in these programs often report that the practice tasks are helpful in reinforcing skills, and also are fun, enjoyable, and can improve children’s relationships with their parents and siblings.
So what can parents do in the summer? They can continue reinforcing social skills in simple and fun ways that can involve the entire family. Parents can play a vital role as mentors and coaches, promoting good eye contact, listening and sportsmanship—all of which can be done in the context of play.
Use of Role-Plays
In an effort to prevent social skills from deteriorating, parents and other caregivers should try to anticipate what social skills the child will need for a given situation and prepare him/her. Role –playing the situation in advance helps children make difficult transitions. The more realistic the role-play, the more effective the outcome.
To role-play a trip to the beach, for example, take out beach toys and towels. Act out any problems that might occur, such as being asked to share toys, and when possible give the child options for how to handle them. Families may want to practice several times for a specific situation until the child becomes more comfortable. Offer different scenarios, changing the situation slightly to prepare the child.
Prompting and Use of Praise as a Reinforcer
For both role-play and regular interactions, parents should praise the child for small achievements such as using their words to request something rather than gesturing or making eye contact. Parents and other caregivers should be most enthusiastic when the child demonstrates an emerging skill rather than a skill she has already mastered.
When at all possible, all adults interacting with the child should use the same prompts. Coordinate between schools, camps and caregivers or service providers so that the same language is being used to describe the same behavior to reduce confusion. For example, when prompting a child to stop flapping his hands, it is better if everyone uses the prompt “hands quiet” instead of some providers saying “hands down.” Prompts should be clear, positive and age appropriate.
Establish regular play sessions frequently during the week. In those sessions parents can choose the activities that they wish to reinforce. At other play sessions the child can pick something that piques his interests. Parents should avoid letting the child win and should even find fair ways to decide who goes first or gets to be a certain color. By doing this, the parent prepares the child to play with other peers who may also care about these issues. Play sessions should be slightly shorter than the child can normally tolerate. If the child is getting frustrated, parents can prompt the child to ask for a break.
Specific Ideas for Games To Improve Skills
Many of the games and strategies used in the WJCS groups reinforce non-verbal communication. They can be played with commonly accepted rules or with slight modifications to improve specific social skills.
To reinforce joint attention and eye contact in school-age children, families can play “hot and cold”. An adult hides an object and instead of saying the words “hot” or “cold” give the child a thumbs up or thumbs down whenever he looks at the adult to signal how close he is getting to the hidden object. For a more advanced version, the parent can smile or frown to communicate how close the child is to the object. Other familiar games, like “Charades” and “Simon Says” also are good for reinforcing eye contact, listening skills and joint attention.
Another strategy to enhance eye contact and looking is “Picture Bingo.” Parents can show the picture to visually cue the child without talking and ask the child to match the picture with the one on his card. Several websites have free bingo cards to print. Families can choose whatever theme and complexity will most interest their child. It’s important to praise the child for good looking skills rather than for winning.
This game also can be used to work on listening skills. In that case, the parent does not show the child the picture, but instead describes and asks the child to match it to a picture he has on his bingo card. By changing the descriptions using colors and shapes, the parent is able to promote good listening.
To decide who goes first in a game, parents should teach the child “rock, paper, scissors,” “odds and evens” or another fair way of making decisions. Practice both the gestures and using it to decide things before applying it to a game.
For younger children or those with newly emerging language skills, families can play a clapping game, such as clap when you hear the word “cat.” Parents state a series of different words and the child has to clap at the word “cat.” To make the game more difficult use similar sounding words such as caterpillar. This game can be adjusted to the child’s particular interests, such as clap when you hear the word “train.” Parents can allow the child to choose the word.
Older children can play a drawing game. The child draws a picture responding to verbal cues or parents can place numbers on the page and ask the child to write something next to the number such as an x on #1 or circle around #2. Parents can cut out pictures of the child’s special interest characters for this as well.
To reinforce good sportsmanship, families can play board games with an element of chance in them such as “Chutes and Ladders” or “Sorry.” It may be easier for a child to accept losing a game like this than a more skill-based game. Parents and siblings can model having fun going down a chute, or self-calming when something frustrating occurs. Throughout the game, the parent should praise the child for staying calm or calming down when they have bad luck. At the end of the game talk about how much fun they had rather than who won.
To reinforce conversational skills, families can make a block tower. For every on-topic comment or question someone makes, a block is added to the tower. Families can try to break their own record by counting how many blocks they can get on the tower until someone goes off-topic or the tower falls. This activity also reinforces taking turns in conversation.
Make Play-Time Fun and Easy
The ultimate goal of parents playing and practicing skills with their child is to help keep the skills fresh. This goes much easier, however, when the child sees the practice play as an enjoyable activity rather than a chore. Parents should make sure that they are initiating play when the child is calm and adequate time is given to transition from the previous task.
When possible, parents should give their child options about what to play. Parents also can create excitement prior to play by letting the child know if the play will include a new toy or a special interest. It is crucial that the parent praise the child for good social skills, especially the skill they are focusing on, throughout the play and also at the end.
Summertime for children with ASD can be a time for fun, exploration and discovery. By using specific, simple strategies, the child’s social skills can continue to improve throughout the summer, and family play time can become a treasured part of the weekly schedule.
Patricia Grossman is the Director of Developmental Disabilities, Kari Phillips is the Asst. Director of Developmental Disabilities, Norma Litman is Program Supervisor at WJCS. For more information, call 914 949-7699 ext 455.