Autism on the Playground

This week was the season premiere of one of the shows I have a like/love relationship with: Parenthood on ABC.    My love relationship is because its good TV.  My like relationship is because I can’t stop being a therapist when I watch it.  So true to form, I must provide lessons and strategies for playground success.

Truth be told it is a challenge for the person with social language deficits (whether its ADD, ADHD, Autism, Aspergers) to navigate the unwritten rules of the playground.  More than that, therapists/coaches/psychologists teaching social skills groups must think about HOW they are teaching these skills.  As a parent reading this, you would probably be shocked  at how many hands do not raise or how many quizzical looks I get when I ask  “Do any of you watch Phineas and Ferb, Do any of you watch Zach and Cody, etc?”   As therapists teaching these skills, we must understand that teaching the skills of social behavior does not place the therapist as peer, but as coach.  As a coach, we must know the social information that our clients need to know in order to better coach and facilitate the real skills of being social.

For therapists, refer to a past blog post on the social connection:

In order to teach playground skills at any age range or skill level:

  1. Get up from the table!  It’s clear that Max’s social teaching was very formal, taught by an social coach focused on etiquette. ..and lacking flexibility and social thinking.  How do I know this?  Because Max extended his hand.

Parent tip: Make sure that your child’s social group (school, private) focuses on the importance of role play.  Role play and getting up from the table will remove those kinks.  AND MOST IMPORTANTLY, the therapist is coach…not peer.  The therapist should not be creating mini-me’s or little adults but teaching and providing REAL information and feedback.

Therapist tip: Motor patterning and Role Playing.  Excuse my small yell of encouragement…GET UP FROM THE TABLE! If we want our kids to be social…we have to get up from the therapy table.  We need to have social postures: sitting, walking, playing, sports, hanging out and all those physical postures in between.  Role playing is crucial as embedding social thinking does not mean thinking in solitude and the quiet…true social thinkers do this on the fly.  They are walking and talking.  They are dribbling the basketball and thinking and talking.  They are gesturing and talking.  We have to teach our kids to read and understand social information (using static pictures and short snipets of movies) as well as inhabit the motor pattern of what it means to participate socially.

  1. Codeswitching:  Codeswitching is referred to moving between various language styles.  It is frequently used for speakers of African-American English (AAE) and Standard American English (SAE) as those are two different language dialects.  I would go as far to say and backed up with research that dialects and language are based upon: age, culture, race, geographic region.  It is clear that Max’s character is very formal in his language presentation, but he has been shown to have moments on past episodes when he is a tad bit more relaxed in his verbal and nonverbal language presentation.

Parent Tip: Make sure your child’s social language group is working not on changing them, but giving them flexibility in how they present.  When you watch the Parenthood episode, it wasn’t that Max said “hello”.  The social turnoff was when he said “my name is Max ___, (and extended his hand)”.

Therapist Tip: Move away from teaching the many ways to say hello.  But have your clients/learners participate in lessons on perspective taking.  Turn on You formal/informal ways to say hello. Let them judge other people and use terms like Weird (Good Weird or Bad Weird), Great, Comfortable, etc.  Get them to give you information on how they want people to feel when they are around, and let them work toward that.

  1. The little people and adults are more forgiving, same age peers are not.  Okay!  We cannot create nor manufacture relationships for our children beyond the 2nd grade.  Third grade is when the real social silos are developed.  And adults teaching social groups and adults in the community are very forgiving for social nuances (well except me, I am a social coach I can be proud of J.  (I digress).  Little people or younger peers are more forgiving as well.  BUT little people grow up and become the third graders with tastes and opinions, leaving the person with social deficits behind.  So what’s a parent to do?!?

Parent Tip: Raise your social expectation and barometer.  Think about it, if my child did not have these social deficits..what would I tell them? How would I help them?  Then , in the modified words of Nike, “Do just that!”.  Why?  Because they need you to teach them, model them, tell them the truth in love.  And find places that work for them.  I had  a student who loved to ask people about the number of  stairs, doors, etc.  inside their house.  Now the “normals” balk at the relevancy of such questions.  My recommendation…find a club, group of kids that love to build things.  That group (social deficits, normals, real/regular people who like to create) will be at ease with those questions…and as a parent you don’t have to manufacture or keep that playdate going.  Rather, it is a natural meaningful situation that provides reinforcement to all its participants.  The stage has been set for the natural relationship to emerge.


Therapist Tip: Stop hooking up your students by telling parents…”oh Susie and Laura would get along so well”.  Instead, find the natural stage and allow the relationships to develop.  Because (as a side note), what are you going to say to mom/dad when they don’t get along so well….

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