Ten tips for success: A roadmap for a parent-led social skills program

By: Caitlin Reilly Lostan, PsyD, BCBA, NCSP (Breakthrough Learning Group) and Marcia Questel, MSEd, BCBA (Association for Science in Autism Treatment)

The following is an excerpt from Lostan, C., & Questel, M.’s “How can I structure playdates for success?” featured in Science in Autism Treatment. The full article can be found here.)

For many children with autism, exhibiting appropriate, functional social and play skills with peers is hard. To set your child up for success during social skills teaching, here are 10 tips to help you plan accordingly. While this roadmap is applicable to any social skills program, it was written for playdates organized within the home; and individual differences will exist within programs based on your child’s strengths and needs, as well as any restrictions necessary due to the COVID-19 pandemic (which is addressed more later in this article).

1.Identify target social skills. The best way to identify what to teach is to collect “baseline” information: observe your child’s social behavior with adults, peers, and toys/games under typical conditions (e.g., outside with a peer, using Facetime with a peer, playing at home with a sibling, participating in an organized community activity, etc.). What activities will your child enjoy most during a playdate? Can you think of very small next goals for them? For example, if they can say “Hi,” and often do respond to that opening greeting, can they add “Let’s play” while beginning a game on their iPad? If they hand over the iPad when someone says, “My turn,” can they wait while the person plays? For how long? Can they learn “My turn” before taking the game back? Be sure that you understand what is developmentally appropriate and that you have individualized expectations for your child (Chang & Shire, 2019).

Create a list of things that your child often does on their own, followed by a potential list of “target skills” for teaching, such that simpler skills are to be taught first (e.g., greetings, staying near peers, passing a ball back and forth a small number of times). Then, once simpler social skills are mastered, more complex social skills (Barton et al., 2019) can be addressed (e.g., turn-taking, adding more social phrases, engaging in loosely structured play, playing a game). Additionally, taking note of activities that your child will enjoy most during a playdate will help create motivation and a positive attitude toward peer play. To develop strategies to teach these smaller steps and build momentum, consult with your BCBA if possible. Again, this person can be found through the BACB website, or there may be certified professionals available to provide ABA parent training through your school district.

At this point, your focus is on identifying a professional who can provide you with teaching strategies of your own (parent training), recognizing the strengths and preferences of your child, and taking small steps towards increasing their practice of skills close to what they can already do. Your BCBA, or professional consultant, can help you to identify which targets are developmentally appropriate, what prerequisite skills are needed for the target skills you hope to teach, and strategies for teaching those skills.

2. Teach skills with an adult first. Ensure that your child has opportunities to gain experience with target social skills before playdates to set everyone up for success. It is often beneficial to teach a skill first with an adult, as an adult is more likely to respond to your child reliably and favorably when they are displaying target responses that a peer might otherwise miss. An informed adult is acutely aware of what the child is working towards, and what behaviors to reinforce. For example, if one parent is teaching a child to play a game with the other parent, one adult acts as the facilitator and the other as the peer. The “teaching” parent will provide prompts and reinforcement, and the “peer” parent will behave as a child ideally would. Further, you can help your child to maintain and generalize learned skills by having him practice the skills with other people. Helping your child become fluent in these foundational social skills will help him feel more comfortable and confident, minimize frustration, and will allow you to focus on teaching advanced social and play skills more efficiently during live social skills sessions with peers. It also increases the likelihood that a successful playdate with be a reinforcing event for your child and may lead to their increased desire to play with peers.

3. Select peers carefully. Identifying a peer for social skills sessions is paramount to the success of your social skills program. Effective social skills peers are enthusiastic, responsive, and understanding. That is, they initiate opportunities for your child to respond, they reliably respond to your child in a favorable way, and they exhibit patience as your child practices socializing. A peer’s response should serve as reinforcement for your child’s response, so it is important that they reliably respond to help your child learn the positive consequences of social interaction.

To find suitable peers, ask your child’s teacher or other school staff for children that your child gets along with; ask the parents of other neighborhood children; or search among a support group online. You may be surprised to find parents looking for peers right in your neighborhood through Facebook groups! Make your needs specific and clear (e.g., playdates will be a few times per week/ month, the peer will need to read from a script, etc.), particularly if health concerns are in play at the time (e.g., both children will wear masks, sessions will be via Skype from time to time, etc.). Some considerations you may have are finding peers with similar interests; finding peers who have exceptional social/empathic skills (they can wait patiently, don’t mind compromising, etc.); and those who have parents who understand and accept neurodiversity.

Set a schedule to ensure consistent opportunities for learning. For younger children, it may be more appropriate to refer to these sessions as playdates (as we have throughout), but be clear and honest to the peer about his or her responsibilities (e.g., that they must follow the playdate activity list; that they must wait for their peer to respond to any social initiations as it might take a little longer; that their job is to help a friend practice talking; or that they get to earn a prize at the end for helping their friend practice). Remember that the structure for social skills sessions will look quite different across both learners and peers depending on the unique abilities, needs, personalities, and preferences of both participants. Some children may need more practice to learn to play the games that your child is already good at; others may start off seeming apprehensive; or some may not feel sure of what they are expected to do. Try to be patient and provide several opportunities for the peer to warm up, feel comfortable, and practice the expected responses before moving on to someone new. While this may take time, remember that this peer may grow to become a wonderful part of your home-based efforts.

4. Use evidence-based methods. Once you have identified teaching targets and potential peers for playdates, it is time to really get started! As exciting as this is, it is important to guide these social skills sessions by using evidence-based methods, choosing and measuring appropriate goals, individualizing those goals, and learning to teach them. Depending on the structure of your session and your child’s needs, these methods may take different forms, but generally should include the use of motivational systems (like token boards) and the use of systematically faded prompts to foster independence (e.g., removing your verbal prompt of “Hi” when your child sees his peer, as he is reliably saying “Hi” each time you use this prompt). Evidence-based methods also call for the collection of objective data to monitor progress (more on that below). If any of this sounds confusing or overwhelming, consult with your BCBA as you plan; ask for help from school staff; or find videos (such as Playdates: Real Life Tips for Kids with Autism or How to Plan a Successful Playdate for Your Child with Autism) of others using these techniques to bolster your skill set and help increase the effectiveness of your playdate program. Additional resources have been provided at the end of this article to support your program development

5. Ease into demands. Take care to ensure the social skills session is a positive experience; neither you, the peer, nor your child should feel overwhelmed with the plan. Working on a few goals effectively is better than attempting to conquer an overwhelming list of too many targets. When starting out, keep sessions very short and consider prompting more heavily for their success, so that your child gains confidence and comfort with his peers. Keep the rate of reinforcement very high in the beginning, and as your child and the peer demonstrate increased comfort and success, you can stretch out the requirements necessary for earning those intermittent rewards. Make every effort to end the session on a high note (e.g., a highly preferred activity for both the peer and your child, a video game, a make-your-own sundae activity).

6. Maximize motivation through preferred activities. Motivation is essential for keeping both children engaged, and for maximizing your child’s learning. Your child will be more likely to ask his friend to play a game if he enjoys it. Taking turns in selecting activities or using a choice schedule of activities may help keep both children motivated to participate. If motivation is lacking, think of ways you might increase it by modifying session activities or implementing a reward system. Remember: have fun! It is important that joy is evident (smiles, laughter, silliness, or that the children are calm and engaged). If it is not, something should change. Stick to your plans and schedule but take opportunities to change things up if something is not working. If you planned a game of tag that is not working out, feel free to say “You know what? This isn’t super fun, is it? Let’s move on to the next thing in the schedule.” If the children agree, move on. But beware, you do not want to overdo this as it will degrade the worth of having the schedule in the first place. Instead of skipping an activity, try making it shorter, finding a silly way to get to the end faster, or pairing it with something fun or even a tasty treat alongside it.

7. Try using a reward system. Reward systems can take on many different forms (token boards, sticker charts, points), so consider what has motivated your child in the past. You might use small pieces of a favorite snack alongside tokens; provide access to a favorite toy; or use a token board where your child is given stickers for desired behavior. You may even have a group reward system where both children earn rewards for social interactions and prosocial behaviors, such as sharing, turn-taking, complimenting, waiting, etc. It is best to save these special snacks or other rewards for playdates only, as this will likely make your child more eager to earn them. Children do not always have to earn a specific thing; they could just earn a break. Locating a place to take a break on their own, or doing an isolated activity for a few moments, decompressing, breathing, etc., may be helpful. In the early stages, the effort needed to learn new skills may not be inherently rewarding, so the hope is that a reward system will maximize motivation and cooperation for your child and their play partner.

8. Provide effective prompting and support for ultimate independence: Prompt fading, reducing rewards, and considering using schedules. You and your BCBA, consulting professional, or certified school staff may decide that your child may require significant prompting initially, so think about how you can fade that assistance as your child’s skills improve. When your child demonstrates a target skill, provide a reward and praise for what was done correctly. As your child demonstrates these skills reliably with a certain level of help, you should fade your assistance until the child is ultimately independent. Similarly, as the child exhibits a skill with more ease, decrease how often that skill results in a reward. Eventually, the goal is for your child’s behavior to be rewarded by playing and talking with his friend, rather than your delivery of contrived rewards and praise.

Structure will help a social skills session move along efficiently and successfully. It also helps both children anticipate what will be happening and when, in what order. Therefore, it may be worthwhile to make a picture or textual schedule of activities to follow (Hampshire & Hourcade, 2014). You may also embed textual prompts for verbal exchanges in this schedule of activities or create a full script for your child to practice interacting with a peer. As your child learns, you can gradually fade out the schedule so that the social interactions become more natural.

9. Develop a plan for managing problematic behavior. If your child exhibits behaviors that may interfere with a successful social skills session, plan for how to manage these moments and be sure to follow through. This plan may be one that you are carrying over from what school staff do during the school day (a Behavior Intervention Plan, or BIP). It is important that this is discussed with your team, consultant, your spouse or partner, and any other members of your family that may take part. Your plan may include preventative strategies, such as limiting the duration of the playdate, using visual supports (e.g., the schedules described above), providing breaks, providing frequent rewards, or minimizing activities that are a source of frustration. Consistent consequences are essential to decrease disruptive behaviors and to help your child successfully relate to his peers

10. Collect data to monitor progress. Taking data on your child’s target skills (those identified earlier in this process) during social skills sessions is essential to monitoring progress (Barton & Pavilanis, 2012). This process will help you set goals, monitor changes objectively, and alter your teaching methods if progress has stalled or declined. For example, if your child is not saying “Hi” to his peer after teaching this during several playdates, you may need to increase motivation; increase your level of assistance (such as providing a verbal model of the greeting); or consult with a BCBA for other suggestions.

The following is a mock example of a basic data sheet that can be created to track your child’s progress during each social skills session. The skills that you teach and the data you collect will vary depending upon your child’s individual needs and abilities.

   Leo’s Playdate Data Sheet                                                                         (Lostan, 2022)
Date: 1/25/20                  Peer: Carter
Greeting a peer: Leo will say, “Hi [peer’s name]” within 5 seconds of seeing the peer enter. + 1/1 = 100%
Responds to peer when name is called: Leo will turn and look at the peer within 5 seconds of the peer calling his name.
+ – – + – 2/5 = 40%
Takes turns with peer on iPad: Leo will set a timer for 2 minutes; engage with an iPad activity until the timer sounds; say, “Your turn” while delivering the iPad to the peer; sit and wait during the peer’s 2-minute turn without interruption; say, “My turn” when the timer sounds; and wait for the peer to hand over the iPad.
1. Sets timer +
2. Plays on iPad +
3. Stops timer +
4. “Your turn” – 5.
Delivers iPad to peer within 5 seconds –
6. Waits during peer’s turn +
7. “My turn” +
8. Waits for peer to give back iPad +
6/8 = 75%
Plays “Guess Who” with a peer using a visual guide/schedule: Leo will pick a card representing familiar characters and place it on his board without revealing the identity. He will then take turns asking questions and eliminating potential characters based on the peer’s response. When one character is left, he will ask, “Is your person [name]?”
1. Selects character +
2. Places on board without revealing identity +
3. Asks question –
4. Accurately knocks down eliminated characters +
5. Answers peer’s question accurately +
6. If one character remains, ask, “Is your person [name]?” +
5/6 = 83%
Participates in a 20-minute interaction in the absence of tantrum behavior (crying with no pain/injury or throwing items on the floor).
+ + + + + + + + + + – – – – – + + + + + 15/20 minutes = 75%

About the Authors:

Caitlin Reilly Lostan, PsyD, BCBA, NCSP is a NJ licensed psychologist, board certified behavior analyst, and NJ-licensed/nationally certified school psychologist. Dr. Lostan obtained her MA in psychology in education from Columbia University, and her PsyD in school psychology at Fairleigh Dickinson University. Dr. Lostan’s dissertation focused on the components that contribute to autism awareness. She is the founder and director of Breakthrough Learning Group, a pediatric therapy practice providing ABA and psychological services for young children.   

Marcia Questel is a BCBA with a Master’s degree in Special Education (Concentration – Autism) and Graduate Certificate in Applied Behavior Analysis from Long Island University. She obtained her Bachelor’s degree in Developmental Psychology with a focus on autism and other developmental disorders, where her passion for researching executive functioning (EF) and Theory of Mind  (ToM) began. Her journey in this field started 20 years ago while volunteering in an early intervention center. It was at that time that autism became a part of her and her family’s lives, with a family member’s diagnosis. Since then, 3 other members of her extended family have received diagnoses of autism, and she has remained dedicated to the autism community. Previously, Marcia provided 1:1 instruction, managed an autism center in New York, and taught piano to children with autism and their siblings. Marcia is currently working in private practice, providing consultation to families and school faculty, and is a Content Editor for ASAT’s monthly publication, Science in Autism Treatment. She is also the Externship Co-Coordinator for ASAT. In response to the current climate, she is conducting research regarding access to telehealth during the COVID-19 pandemic, engaging in telehealth and in-person services through ABAskills, LLC, and is creating supportive content for parents and professionals. Marcia is also a research assistant at the Affect Regulation and Cognition (ARC) Lab at Yale University. 


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Citation for this article:

Lostan, C., & Questel, M. (2022). Clinical Corner: How can I structure playdates for success? Science in Autism Treatment, 19(5).

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