As we all continue to be socially distanced by the pandemic, kids’ social skills are certainly suffering. This can be especially true for neurodiverse children who already faced challenges connecting with peers. Even children who are working with a therapist aren’t getting the same social skills practice they would have with other children.
“As much as I try to play like a child when I’m working on social skills, I cannot replicate the spontaneity and unpredictability of what a child may do,” says behaviorist Mary Webb, vice president of clinical services at Autism Learning Partners. “When I play turn-taking activities, I’m really fair. That might not be the case when little Johnny sits down to play.”
Since the safest way for us all to connect right now is online, I reached out to Webb and her colleague psychologist Amy Wilson for tips to help kids make the most of these experiences.
Choose an area of interest: Webb notes the abundance of virtual classes, tours and other activities now available for kids. These can be a great chance to practice social skills, but only if your child wants to participate. That will be more likely if your child is interested in the topic. “Some of our kids are interested in things like dinosaurs or trains,” Webb says.
Be ready to participate: Depending on your child’s level of independence, they might need support – from you, a sibling or even a therapist – to help them participate. Less formal gatherings can also work. “For example, clinicians and parents have developed social lunch hours where kids gather on screen to practice conversational skills, virtual group art classes, setting up peer hangouts to play interactive games virtually,” says Wilson, who is clinical director of Autism Learning Partners in Laguna Hills.
Time activities wisely: With virtual activities, Wilson advises going for quality over quantity. “Keep children in online interactions for just as long as they can be successful and gradually build upon that,” she says. “Some children with special needs may be successful for brief interactions that consist of a few minutes where they say hi, sing a song, listen to a book being read to them, then say goodbye. Others may be successful for hours doing a wide variety of things.” She advises having a plan for what activities you’ll try, to minimize downtime. If your child will be on multiple video calls, consider having a “movement break” between them.
As we all look forward to a day, post-pandemic, when we can breathe more freely and be more social, trying some of these tactics will help our children stay connected – and build and maintain social skills that can help them throughout life.