I have been looking forward to this Q & A for quite some time! Madi is Cali’s AMAZING therapist from Autism Journeys. She comes twice a week, working on ABA therapy, Floortime therapy, and P.L.A.Y. Project therapy. I truly believe it is a combination of these therapies, others not listed, Cali’s diet, play dates, and general one on one time that has been the key to Cali’s progress. Eliminate one and the progress wouldn’t be same. One therapy in particular has proven to be a shining star…P.L.A.Y. Project. You can read more about this therapy in a previous post.
Since starting this play therapy, we have seen tremendous gains in Cali’s interaction when playing with friends. She still has a ways to go with knowing how to appropriately play, engage, and interact with her peers, but I am confident Cali will grow up with multiple friends, even a few best friends here and there.
Autism or not, all children could use a few helpful hints on how to appropriately play. All parents, autism parents or not, will inevitably run into questions regarding their child’s play. Non of us can claim perfection in regards to our child’s play, so with that I thought a Q & A about peer play could offer up some insightful thoughts and/or answers.
The questions below were taken from friends and family. And surprisingly, or not so surprisingly, most questions came from parents of neurotypical kids. Here it goes…
How can I tell if my child is at the appropriate level of play and social awareness for their age?
It may be helpful to watch other kids. Try not to compare, but watch and observe. Look for ways your child interacts with other kids, and watch for how other kids respond to your child. Can your child stay engaged in age-appropriate activities with their peers? Are they able to follow other kids’ ideas and problem solve? Playing and social awareness will look different for each age, so it’s good to have a basic knowledge of social development milestones. If you search online you will be able to find many articles and charts on this topic. Although these milestone charts are helpful as a guideline, every child varies in development so be aware of your child’s individual strengths and weaknesses when assessing their social abilities.
If I see red flags, what would you recommend I do first? Obviously looking for advice and treatment, but what steps/person would you go to first? (This was huge for me since there are so many things that were totally typical and just a few borderline/worries for me)
The first thing I would recommend is getting an evaluation. Some pediatricians may have autism screeners, and those are helpful, but don’t be timid about seeing other professionals. In my experience with parents I’ve found that a lot of them had a “feeling” or something pushing them to getting an evaluation, so follow your gut, even if you think some of your worries may be borderline. For a comprehensive list of red flags or things to look for visit Autism Journeys/Autism 101.
I always felt my child was right on or advanced in areas, and see a few social behaviors lagging behind, mostly adapting to other kids’ play. Is this normal and what would you recommend?
Adapting to other kids’ play can mean different things…are they unable to keep up with the pace of play and stay engaged, or are they having a hard time with flexibility, resulting in rigidity in their play? Either way, these struggles are typical in kids with autism spectrum disorders. There are many strategies you can use to help your child develop better peer play skills. Some include using social stories, helping to create turn taking during play dates, or getting on the floor and playing with your child and pretending to be a peer.
What are some tips when I play with my child?
Number one rule: follow their lead. When you do what your child loves, then they’ll love being with you! How you play and what techniques you use depend on what play level your child is. Are they distant and disengaged? Find what they’re interested in and pay close attention to what their intentions are…see if you can build off of that and create a simple back and forth game or interaction. Is your child able to do make-believe play but may fragment at times? Work on sticking with them and try to extend the play longer. Are they unable to follow others’ ideas and get stuck or melt down? Put playful obstruction and problem solving into your play with them. Push them to think outside the box a little. Play can be a very complex and difficult thing, so if you’re running into more problems you may want to talk to a P.L.A.Y. Project home consultant.
What are exercises to keep them engaged?
Every kid (and every adult!) has sensory experiences that they prefer and dislike. Ask yourself these questions: do you enjoy being tucked in the covers at night, or do you like your bed sheets to be loose? What do you do to regulate yourself when you’re nervous? Do you bite your nails, twiddle your thumbs, or bounce your leg? These are all sensory preferences/activities that we do to make ourselves more focused, engaged, and comfortable in our surroundings. When you can find your child’s sensory preferences and “activate” them in play, you have a better chance of keeping them engaged with you. Activities that rarely fail include playing in a bin of beans, rolling or swinging in a blanket, jumping on the bed or trampoline, being squished with pillows, and other rough-housing activities. Be sure, however, to be sensitive to how your child responds when you try new things.
If my child is frequently choosing to leave the group if they reject his/her topic of play, how do I encourage them to re-enter the group and adapt to a new idea?
Some of the strategies that I’ve seen work are mentioned in an above answer. You can help your child become more flexible with social stories, playing with them, or having them take turns with their ideas. Another thing you can try is having an older peer that you trust play with your child. You can give the older child directions to be persistent but kind with their ideas and to “push back” a little when playing.
What are the most common mistakes parents make in play without even knowing it? (IE Always letting them direct the play and you think you are being nice, etc)
The most common mistakes I see are 1. Directing the play too much, 2. Talking/asking too many questions, and 3. Forcing academic concepts into play. I think one of the hardest things to get comfortable with is silence. It can feel so awkward and uncomfortable, but for some kids it is better. It leaves the door wide open for them to try their own ideas and to initiate play. Waiting is perfectly okay—we want kids to be independent and imaginative and then follow what they come up with. Sit back and watch and you may be surprised at what they do. J
What are a few of the best ways to facilitate my child thriving in play and social situations?
Practice! Depending on the age and developmental level of the child, you may be able to talk through how things went after a play date or even set up goals beforehand. Being open and understanding with your child is usually best. I have mentioned social stories quite a bit, but those can help as well. To learn more about social stories you can search about them online.
What are techniques to help my child increase self regulation and proper engagement?
I find that active activities that involve movement help to increase regulation and engagement. Play with the hose outside, jump on the trampoline, have races across the yard, etc. If your child is going to a quieter or subdued social activity, you can have them do sensory activities to help them prepare.
How often should I play with my child actively vs letting them play on their own or with friends?
We all like our alone time, so it’s important to be respectful of that, especially as kids get older. Although we want our kids to be engaged and “with us”, it is okay to give them time to do what they want. For kids receiving P.L.A.Y. therapy we recommend playing with your child for 20 hours a week, but keep your child’s individual needs in mind.
Sometimes I feel like I interrupt my child’s play too much to teach correct social behaviors. Should I be doing this? (Not for big things like hitting or calling names, but social appropriate sharing, back and forth conversing, introducing themselves etc per age level)
In the past with some of my clients I have had them come up with a “code word” or something else secret between the two of us. Whenever I saw an “unexpected” social behavior come up, I would use the agreed upon code word to cue them. This helps to avoid embarrassing situations around peers. Also, I would recommend picking your battles. We all do socially awkward things throughout the day (I know I do!). What things do you think are most impairing to your child’s social development? Pick your biggest concerns and take it one step at a time so you don’t feel like you’re constantly nagging.
My daughter will play with her twin sister and be very engaged all day long, but most of the time when we go to friends’ houses she is off by herself doing her own thing. I try to remind her to play with her friends, but it will only last a few minutes. Why do kids do that, and what do you suggest I do to help her engage with other kids?
When kids go off and do their own thing, it can be for a multitude of reasons. Some kids may be overwhelmed with unfamiliar or unpredictable things which cause them to disengage. Others may simply get distracted or get off track. I would suggest having friends come to your house to play. This way you can keep an eye on what’s happening or you can even jump in and play with the group! Doing this can also remove the barrier of her feeling uncomfortable and can free up her mind to be better engaged.
A huge thank you to Madi for taking the time to ponder and answers these questions. I didn’t think I could glean much from this, seeing how we discuss Cali’s play therapy so often, but I was wrong. Great insight and thorough answers!! Thank you!