Social and Play Skills

Increasing Social Skills & Peer Interactions in Children with Language Delays*

Some children with developmental disabilities or language delays exhibit impairments in their social skills development. For many of these children, social skills must be taught directly: simply having the child exposed to peers is often not sufficient for the child to learn social skills.

Specific social skills targets should be a part any intervention or education plan. Teaching social skills can be complicated. There are many different aspects to social behaviour including nonverbal behaviours (e.g. body language, proximity, facial expression, and eye contact), verbal behaviours (what someone says), and listener behaviours (listening to what someone else is saying). The rules involved in social behaviour are often complex, vague and continuously changing. Many social skills, especially advanced ones, involve complex skills (e.g. attending and listening, asking and answering questions, staying on topic, monitoring your own facial expressions, tone of voice, proximity, emotional regulation and coping skills, etc).

In addition, peers are often not as reinforcing as adults and they compete for adult attention and for turns, they often do not share or take turns or wait. Peers do not respond as quickly and clearly as adults do, they are not very skilled at reading facial expressions and body language, they do not wait for slow responses or poor articulation, and they may have deficits in language and social skills similar to the child with ASD.

Here are some general tips and strategies to promote social skills and interactions with peers.

First, it is often necessary, especially early on, to set up and create opportunities for social interactions. Adults may have to instruct children to interact with their peers and vice versa and prompt children and peers during their interactions. Activities should be selected that are reinforcing for the child with ASD and the peer, require proximity, interaction and cooperation.

Second, select peers that are willing to help, that follow instructions, attend to adults and are generally cooperative. Talk to the peer ahead of time about what you would like them to do or say and how to respond. Make sure to reinforce the peer for participating. Initially start with a select few peers and gradually increase the number of peers the child can interact with.

Third, pair the peer(s) with reinforcement! For many children with ASD, peers are associated with reduced adult attention and the loss of toys. For more advanced children we do need to teach them to tolerate these things, but for the early learner, we want to start by teaching them that peers are fun and there is a benefit to interacting with them!

Finally, there are many different curricula available for assessing and teaching social skills that break down skills and provide teaching strategies and steps. It is a good idea to use a social skills curriculum because social skills involves many skills and can get complex at higher levels.

Some sample curricula include “Making a Difference” (Ed. Maurice, Green, & Foxx, 2001), “Navigating the Social World” (McAfee, 2002), “Do-Watch-Listen-Say” (Quill, 2000) & “Crafting Connections” (Taubman, Leaf, & McEachin, 2011).

* From Alphabee (

Playing with Peers*

How can we help our child have a successful play date? Playing with peers can be difficult for children with ASD. To maximize success, use the following four steps:

1) Make sure your child is ready for play dates. It helps to have the following skills.

  • Basic play skills. Your child needs to be able to play with toys & games, ideally those that interest other children his age.
  • Some awareness & interest in peers. Your child doesn’t need to be skilled in interacting with other children. But it helps if he’s interested & motivated to play with them.
  • Can “practice play” with adults. This is the first step to interacting with children. Adults tend to be more structured & predictable & can provide appropriate prompting as needed. This makes it easier for children with ASD to learn basic play skills such as taking turns & being able to play & share different toys.

2) Choose the right playmate.

It’s important to make sure that the friend is a good match for your child. Find a friend who shares some of your child’s special interests. If your child’s play skills are behind his peers, it can also help if the playmate is a little younger. In general, look for playmates who are patient & flexible. Many children with ASD do well with peers who are friendly & willing to help draw others into social interactions.

3) Prepare

  • Pre-select the activities. Start with familiar activities that have clear steps or roles (eg. making simple cookies, board game, video game or tag). In general, structured activities are easier than unstructured ones. But, an unstructured activity that taps your child’s special interests (cars? trains? Lion King?) can be successful.
  • Have a structured play date plan. Many children with ASD have difficulty with transitions. Give your child a visual schedule of the planned play activities. If your child likes to play with a wide variety of toys, have he & his friend take turns choosing what to do next. Have a set end time. Keep it under 30 minutes for the first play date. If successful, add time to the next visit.
  • Role play & practice how to play with friends. Practice the activities you’ve planned & describe/show your child the play date plan. Talk about things that might happen, such as the other child wanting to do something different than what your child wants to do. That will enable the two of you to talk about how your child should handle these situations.

4) Be ready to:

  • Coach your child. He may need reminders to wait his turn, share, respond when his friend speaks to him, etc.
  • Coach your child’s friend. With the right playmate, offer a few suggestions for interacting with your child. For instance, to “try again” if your child doesn’t immediately respond to a suggestion & to “gently ignore” an undesired behavior such as yelling.
  • Let kids be kids. Coaching is important but give your child & his playmate a chance to work things out before you intervene.

*Taken from Autism Speaks

Other Resources

A Parent’s Guide: Teaching Play Skills to Children with Autism

Teaching Typical Children to Enhance the Play and Social Skills of their Friends with Autism and Other PDDs: A Manual

Social Matters: Improving Social Skills Interventions for Ontarians with ASD

What Can Help Improve Social Interaction and Development?

Direct Teaching of Non-Verbal Social Communication Skills

What to Look for When Choosing Social Skills Programs for People with ASD

How To Help Autistic Kids With Play

Teaching Skills for Playing with Other Children

Social and Play Skills


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