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Let's play

Hello readers,

Today we'd like to share with you some wonderful work recently posted by Bill Nason onto his Autism Discussion Page.

As we mentioned before, peer modelling and peer play buddies are a great way to teach social skills and help children on the spectrum make friends. There's a myth out there that people with autism are "asocial" and don't like being around other people - This is not true! Though alone time may be especially fulfilling for people with autism, they can also want social connection just like anyone else, though may find group interaction especially confusing and overwhelming. This causes avoidance of such situations. Like all people, individuals with autism can greatly benefit from deeper, 1-1 friendship. Clink on the link (or read below) to see the steps Bill Nason took to introduce a type of easy, no-demands friendship to a child (and eventually group social play):

"Facilitated play with peer mentors

Many of you who read the last post, “God, I would love to play”, saw a glimpse of your own children there. For some of you that was a sad moment. However, the last paragraph was a clue to an open door. That little girl was a peer mentor who volunteered to make friends with Jake, the little boy. This was third grade. It was the beginning of a friendship, that last I heard was still going four years later. Also, within that same year, once the children saw the gains that Jake was making, two other children volunteered to be peer mentors (friends) with Jake. The nice thing about starting this young is that the peer mentors really want to be friends. So it becomes true facilitated friendships. It is amazing how effective it is to work with peer mentors.

With Jake, we worked one on one, with only one friend at first. He first learns how to co-regulate play with one person, instead of entering into the chaotic world of group play. This is a mistake I think many social skills groups make. They pair kids up with peer mentors, but often in group activities, which are way too advanced for the children’s current abilities. Children on the spectrum have major difficulties processing even individual interaction and become totally overwhelmed trying to regulate several kids at one time.The nice thing about starting with third graders is they are so accepting, with a little understanding. They are mature enough to follow a few directions, but also are very pure in their interactions. Give the mentor one or two directions, and then allow them to freely engage, rather than script the interaction.

In this case, Molly jumped at the chance to be Jake’s friend. She didn’t know how but wanted to be his friend. We told her that Jake was much like every other boy. He wanted to play with others but had difficulty understanding how. He had difficulty understanding how other people think and feel, so he also had difficulty understanding how to play with them. Jake thinks a little differently than others. He has the same desires but has trouble speaking to others.

We discuss with Molly how Jake would probably not talk at first, but that did not mean he didn’t want to play with her. We simply asked Molly to play alongside Jake, do what he was doing and simply talk about how she felt doing it; without trying to direct it, change it, or prompt other activity. We asked her to say only one sentence statements at a time and do not expect a response back. It was ok to simply sit and “play with him” (parallel play) with minimal interaction. We had Molly practice (role play) with me playing Jake. The only additional suggestion was for Molly to smile whenever Jake looks her way. This was natural for Molly anyway. She was a friendly girl. It was amazing how easy it was for Molly to do. It was like it was natural for her.

After two weeks of playing with Jake in the sand, we decided to expand it to the playground (swings, jungle gym). We knew Jake liked to swing, climb, and run; it was just that he could not do it with others. We didn’t want to do it with the other kids on the playground, so we set it up for Molly and Jake to go out later in the afternoon for 15 minutes “extra” recess. We figured we would need to teach some type of “safety” tool for Molly to help transition Jake into other activity. During the second week in the sandbox, we had Molly start reaching out her hand to Jake (for him to touch) when she approached and when they ended the play. She was also encouraged to do this when Jake seemed to “freeze” during play. We wanted to establish an easy, “safe” form of physical contact. This also solidified the “companionship”. Jake appeared to feel “safe” with Molly, so this helped solidify it.

After two weeks we decided to take the play to the swings and jungle gym. Since Jake already knew how to play on the equipment, we didn’t have to worry about teaching him to use them. Our only instructions for Molly was to start in the sandbox, then reach out and take Jake’s hand, say “Let’s go swing” and then gently stand up. If Jake stands up with her, then go over to the swings and swing together. As we thought, Jake hesitated a second but went over to the swings with Molly. He jumped on one swing and Molly right next to him. Jake had the biggest smile. As they swung together, Molly was asked to simply say “swing” each time she went forward (which we role played together). If Jake spoke at all, Molly was instructed to repeat the word back. And sure enough, Jake was happy as could be and he hollered out “swing!” Molly immediately repeated “swing”.This facilitation progressed pretty quickly; to climbing, riding the rocking horses, teeter totter, and going down the slide. They learned to take turns and follow each other’s lead.

As Jake was feeling safe and comfortable playing with Molly, we gradually recruited two boys to be additional peer mentors. This allowed us to build from one on one play to playing with 2-3 children. For each of the two boys, we gradually added one at a time into Molly and Jake’s play. This way Jake felt safe enough having Molly there and the boy would simply follow their lead. Eventually, when the boys felt comfortable with Jake, we allowed them to play with him without Molly. These three “friends” became Jake’s “peer group”. We started having them play in groups of two to three together, also inside playing computer games, board games, and inside bowling. Jake was really good with the video games so that was really inviting to the boys. He also loved transformers, which was also a favorite of one of the boys.

We asked Jake’s mother to start arranging play dates at home, with only one of the kids at a time. Mom was taught to sit down with Jake and his friends and make a list of activities that they all liked to play. From this list, mom and Jake would sit down and plan out each playdate and would preview the night before what activities they were going to play and for how long. Also, mom helped remind Jake of any social rules that she could think of. They also reviewed this list just prior to the play date.

As time goes on you can see with a little planning we can expand these friendships to different children, activities, and settings. This cannot be done effectively without “peer mentors” and facilitated play. They just have to start where the child feels “safe” (comfort zone) and gradually stretch the play once the child feels comfortable. We start by allowing the child to lead, and then gradually teach co-regulation as he becomes more comfortable. When this type of “peer facilitation” is started early, it is actually pretty easy for both the child on the spectrum and the peers. They seem to be more natural at it; more genuine with wanting to be friends. It is a nice development to watch!"

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