Are you planning for an upcoming playdate for a child with ASD? Has your child with autism had their fair share of playdates gone wrong? If so, there is no need to fret. Role-playing is a proven way to support children of all ages, including those on the autism spectrum, to learn the essential tenets of playdates - and relationships in general.
The skills you teach your child with autism, and any siblings, are more than just tips for playdate success. These practices and life lessons are the foundation for successful communication and relationship building at school, with neighborhood peers, and throughout their working adult life.
Role-playing is like the physical manifestation of all those symbol cards and charts you’ve created to scaffold daily life in your household. Now, it’s time to use actual words (or visuals for non-verbal children), body language, and actions to model scenarios most likely to unfold during an average playdate.
We know role-playing is not comfortable. Many adults and children find it difficult or awkward to “pretend.” It can feel forced or futile. However, with a bit of time, focused practice for playdates, and repetition, role-play practice will pay off.
Current research shows that children whose parents, educators, or behavioral specialists regularly role-play scenarios have higher-level verbal skills and are more confident in the social realm. In a post on ABC News, Wendy Stone, Ph.D., Director, Marino Autism Research Institute; Prof. of Pediatrics, Vanderbilt University researcher states, “Children with autism can respond well to scripts that actually tell them what to do and what to say in certain situations. And practicing with those scripts and practicing through role-plays can be very, very helpful.”
This may be something you only have to do for a short while during your child’s preschool and early elementary life. However, most children with autism benefit from age- and scenario-relevant role-playing practice to accommodate the social changes that occur in older grades, with newly acquired interests/abilities, in the workplace, etc.
Your child may feel just as reluctant, awkward, or uncomfortable as you do. Keep that in mind. Make role-playing practice for playdates fun. Positive reinforcement (extra game time, a favorite snack, lots of praise, etc.) goes a long way here.
Also, you can’t teach all the necessary lessons in one go. This is a work in progress. Start with the scenarios most likely to cause the most significant ripples. Get those down. Then you can branch into other things. If you find yourself going nowhere, backward, or getting frustrated, it’s time to take a break. And, don’t forget to model that to your child! Watching us experience hard, strong feelings - and using healthy coping strategies - is an authentic role-playing moment at its finest.
If you’re not used to role-playing, we recommend creating small, easy-to-follow scripts. In the beginning, you’ll use these scripts to role-play short and sweet interactions most likely to occur in your child’s social life - specifically when playing with one or a few other children.
Activities and events worth practicing using role-play include:
In almost all cases, you should plan to role-play at least three times per scenario to help it “stick.” Obviously, a scripted child isn’t natural, but the idea is that with time and experience, the scripted child is better able to honor the idea behind the lesson in their own way.
Many children struggle to go along with spontaneous events or activities outside of the routine. Routines and structures make most of us feel safe and secure. That’s especially true for many children with autism. However, the reality is that while we can predict many things (the need to politely greet parents and family members and a new friend's house or how to courteously thank them afterward), some events are less predictable.
Once you and your child are better at role-playing and have a few important scenarios under your belts, be spontaneous. You may even have a “Spontaneous Role-Play” jar with random, real-life events. Draw one and see what you both come up with. Then play them out. Often, there isn’t one right answer, and your child will probably surprise you sometimes with their adept responses.
Consider things like:
Don’t forget this can be a family affair. Try to get siblings and other family members involved as much as possible. In addition to sibling bonding, your other children may be far more aware of what scenarios are likely or what situations trigger your child at school or with peers as they’re playing on the same, literal, fields.
Plus, the more people willing to authentically practice for playdates with your child, the more social practice s/he gets, and the more differences in opinions, ideas, feelings, and solutions may emerge. That’s more realistic than if s/he only role-plays with the same person all the time.
We promise that role-playing will become easier and easier with time and practice. Pretty soon, role-playing scenarios will become part of everyday life - and the benefits will show up in your child’s increased social success.
The Autism Response Team is an expert at role-playing. We use applied behavior analysis to create role-playing scripts, ideas, and opportunities personally suited to our clients, their families, classrooms, and friends. Would you like support or facilitation as your family learns how to role-play with a child with ASD? Contact us to schedule a consultation, at (877) 77-ART-TX, or to sign up for one of our education groups.