Although it is often easiest to include children with ASD with their typical peers when they are younger (as opposed to in middle school and beyond), there are many children with ASD who struggle to interact in age appropriate ways with their peers at school in the primary grades. Here are some tips you can use to decide if the student with ASD is being included in ways that build his skills and that of his peers, as well as some tips that will be helpful for improving the quantity and quality of interactions in the classroom:
Is the student with ASD:
- a sociable child who often tries to insert himself into the interactions or activities of other children but is often unsuccessful at maintaining play interactions? (He may not always be well accepted if his communication and play skills don’t match what the others are doing. He may upset others or become easily upset himself.)
- a reluctant child who may respond to teachers but seldom initiates interactions with others, especially peers, remaining on the outside of most peer interactions? (He may watch, but seldom approaches.)
- a child who seems uninterested in what others are doing, spending the majority of time playing alone? (He might interact if he wants something but often ignores other students when they try to get his attention or play with him.)
- a child who is very passive and non-responsive, showing little interest in the people or objects around him? (He may have a significant developmental delay.)
Each of these styles of play indicates that the student with ASD may need specific kinds of support in order to develop his social interactions skills. Regardless of his style you can try the following tips:
Tips for All Styles
- Identify what type of play (if any) the student with ASD seems to prefer. Does he or she like to manipulate and explore toys and objects (even if it is in unusual ways)? Does he or she like to use materials to create or build things (e.g. stacking blocks)? Does he or she seem interested in dramatic play (e.g. playing dress up, pretending to cook in the play house)? Does he or she like games with rules (bingo, cards, checkers, etc.)? Create play opportunities that relate to his strengths and interests.
- Make the best use of space in your classroom. Create designated areas that can support different kinds of play/ interactions e.g. a quiet reading corner, an area for construction toys, a science corner to explore, etc.
- Set up opportunities for a variety of groupings from pairs to casual groups to cooperative groups.
- Play with the students initially to prompt, model and coach appropriate interactions. Fade yourself out of the activities as soon as possible but be ready to move back in if you see the student with ASD having difficulty. Be wary of hovering too closely to avoid having the typical students look to you rather than attempt to solve problems on their own.
- When coaching play, encourage the typical students to talk directly to the student with ASD rather than acting as a translator or mediator (e.g. Tell peer: “Hold out your hand to (student with ASD) and say “Glue please.”)
Tips for the Sociable (but socially inept) Student with ASD
- Show and tell the student what to do rather than what not to do in play situations.
- Engineer successful play situations. Assign or invite compatible peers to join the student with ASD in a play activity you know they will both enjoy. Play with the children initially to model and coach the communicative interactions they need to be successful.
Tips for the reluctant student with ASD:
- Notice what activities seem to interest the student. Who does he watch? What types of play does he watch? Let other students know that when the reluctant student watches them he might want to play.
- Encourage typical peers to offer an item from the play situation to the student with ASD (e.g. give him a block if he is watching the other student play with blocks).
- Notice what types of actions or activities seem challenging for the student with ASD. Set up play situations which limit stimuli that are difficult for him to manage. (e.g. If he is sensitive to noise or to being touched, set up quiet play situations with only one other student at a time.)
Tips for the child with ASD who seems uninterested in interactions:
- Make the play situation worthwhile to him. That is, increase his motivation to want to play by having highly desirable play items available only as a shared activity with one other student.
- Choose peers who are confident, patient and accepting as play partners for this child.
- Teach the play partner how to encourage the uninterested student.
Tips for the passive, less responsive student with ASD:
- Identify what motivates this student. He may need one to one adult instruction in order to acquire basic play skills such as activating a musical toy. Reinforce attempts to interact with the materials using tangible rewards.
- Encourage the other students to include him. Assign peer buddies to “help him” find his spot on the carpet for calendar, line up for gym, turn off the lights when leaving the classroom, etc.
Play develops very naturally in typical children but is a common area of weakness for those with ASD. A large percentage of students with ASD do want to socialize but lack the tools necessary to do so effectively. Don’t assume that just because a child doesn’t pursue play opportunities, that he doesn’t have the desire (and need!) to play with his peers. Play is a powerful tool for building social and communication skills.