Ball Games, Bowling, and the Bachelorette: Getting Individuals with ASD Interested in New Activities

While many adults retain some nostalgia for the characters, games, and toys of their childhood, there is a natural tendency to develop new and changing interests through adolescence and adulthood. For example, a child who likes Sesame Street and juice boxes will probably outgrow those interests in favor of sports and theater, beer and wine. For those with autism, however, rigidity in interests and limited tolerance for new activities can result in a lack of age-appropriate leisure skills in adolescence and adulthood. Because leisure is seen as something “fun” and therefore often unimportant – or at least, not as important as language, social, and academic skills – parents and teachers may be reluctant to challenge children to develop new preferences and leisure activities. It’s perfectly understandable for caretakers to prioritize the efforts and energy put into teaching new skills towards those that are most functional, and to allow play and leisure to be more child-directed.
There are two critical concerns with a failure to develop age- and socially-appropriate leisure skills, however. One major problem is that anyone who doesn’t have something enjoyable to do when the demands of everyday life are lifted may wind up engaging in less than acceptable ways of keeping busy. What they may wind up doing instead is often classified as inappropriate attention-seeking behavior towards peers and staff members, or even destructive or self-injurious behavior. A functional assessment of the concerning behavior often points to the simple problem of boredom, and teaching and encouraging new leisure skills is the best solution.
The second big problem is that socially, the world that we live in is frankly intolerant of adults who exhibit interests in and preferences for activities that are considered childish. There are some acceptable versions of these interests for adults; for example, there are plenty of grown-ups who enjoy creating elaborate model train scenes and who have the financial resources to do so. The individual with autism who loves Thomas the Train may be successfully able to transition that interest into the grown-up version of train hobbies, but will probably be most socially accepted if Thomas is not part of that adult hobby.
So what should be done about the problem of age-, culturally-, or socially-inappropriate interests? Is it even possible to build a new interest in someone who is resistant to unfamiliar activities? The answer is yes. Here are some suggestions to guide the process.
1. It’s always easier to teach what TO DO rather than what NOT to do. Rather than attempting to eliminate or discourage inappropriate interests, put more effort into encouraging appropriate interests to replace the problematic ones.
2. Consistent, regular exposure to new activities is the best way to encourage interest in those activities. “Try it, you might like it,” should be the mantra. Where some people have a natural curiosity and desire to seek out new experiences, people with autism often actively avoid them, so such exposure has to be programmed and guided.
3. If the individual is really resistant to trying something new, consider pairing the new activity with a preferred activity or item. Maybe watching a few minutes of a baseball game on television would be more appealing if favorite snacks were available, or doing some paint-by-numbers would be more likely if a preferred staff member was also doing it.
4. If possible, start exposure and pairing EARLY. Although it’s definitely possible to foster new interests in adults with autism, it’s much easier to establish a pattern of trying new things in a younger child. I strongly advocate having exposure to new activities as a part of regular programming along with language, academics, and social skills training, from the earliest possible point. You want trying something new to be a strong skill set.
5. Don’t get discouraged, and don’t force interests that aren’t being enjoyed. This is a tricky balance. It can take several exposures to get someone to start to enjoy something new, so don’t give up too quickly, but at the same time, know when to say when. If a good effort has been made to try something but the person just doesn’t seek it out after several opportunities, move on to another interest.
6. Keep an eye out for new possibilities, and build on existing interests. If someone genuinely enjoys drawing with markers, he or she may be open to painting, sculpting, or photography. If someone enjoys photography, maybe scrapbooking is a natural extension. An individual who likes to eat may be really motivated to learn to cook, and to enjoy cooking as an activity.
7. Look for ways to generalize existing interests. For example, an individual who enjoys looking up facts online can learn to enjoy researching trips or other leisure activities. Someone who likes to build with Legos might like to learn to put together model car kits or refinish furniture.
Age-appropriate leisure skills are important for many reasons, not the least of which is so that people don’t get bored and engage in problematic behavior when they have nothing else to do. Most adults have something to look forward to when their work is done, and those with autism deserve the same. Children who develop the skill of learning to try and like new things will definitely be a step ahead in terms of having good reinforcers and pleasurable experiences to look forward to throughout their lives!


About The Author

Dana Reinecke is a doctoral level Board-Certified Behavior Analyst (BCBA-D) and a New York State Licensed Behavior Analyst (LBA).   Dana is an Assistant Professor and Department Chair of the Department of Special Education and Literacy at Long Island University Post.  Dana provides training and consultation to school districts, private schools, agencies, and families for individuals with disabilities.  She has presented original research and workshops on the treatment of autism and applications of ABA at regional, national, and international conferences.  She has published her research in peer-reviewed journals, written chapters in published books, and co-edited books on ABA and autism.  Current areas of research include use of technology to support students with and without disabilities, self-management training of college students with disabilities, and online teaching strategies for effective college and graduate education.  Dana is actively involved in the New York State Association for Behavior Analysis (NYSABA), and is currently serving as President (2017-2018).

Strategies for Teaching Games to Young Learners

In this month’s ASAT feature, Maithri Sivaraman and Ruth Donlin offer advice on selecting the best games for children with ASD. To learn more about ASAT, please visit their website at www.asatonline.org. You can also sign up for ASAT’s free newsletter, Science in Autism Treatment, and like them on Facebook!

 

My son is 5 years old and was diagnosed with autism when he was two. He has responded well to early intervention services in terms of his communication and daily living activities. But it is still challenging to for him to play games with his neurotypical peers. When all the kids at a birthday party are playing “Simon Says,” my son prefers to play alone with his toys or just watch the other kids playing. I don’t know how to teach him to play new games or even identify what kind of games he likes. Could you provide some suggestions?

The growing awareness about the early signs of ASD has made it possible for an increasing number of children to be diagnosed by the age of 3 years (Stahmer, 2011). Considering the difficulty in building social relationships and peer play that is often associated with ASD it is important that specific instruction on social behaviors in various play situations is provided.  Research has shown that extensive and planned interaction with peers facilitates social skill development (e.g., Krantz & Mclannahan, 1993; Baker, Koegel & Koegel, 1998). At your son’s age, this interaction primarily occurs during play.

Play has been described as a “child’s workshop” where social rules and consequences are explored (Bruner, 1975). Teaching a game to a child has consequences beyond the game itself: Apart from having fun, it could lead to social engagement, formation of friendships and create abundant opportunities for imitation, negotiation, cooperation, and other skills. However, though important, teaching games to children with autism often involves many challenges, such as the play activity not being motivating to the child, the need for intrusive prompting, having to teach the rules of each game, and managing problem behavior, to name a few.  Some of these challenges can be overcome by using the strategies described below.

Considerations When Choosing a Game

Choose a game that is a match to the child’s developmental level and one that incorporates his or her interests and facilitates social skill development. Games may provide an appropriate social context to the perseverative interests of children with ASD (Koegel et al., 2012; Baker, Koegel & Koegel, 1998). It is a great idea to modify games to accommodate the child’s interests. For example, if the child has a keen interest in vehicles, the Red Light/Green Light game can be modified to be played with cars rather than people. A perseverative interest with names of washing machine brands can be accommodated in the same game by asking the child to take a step forward each time one brand name is said or stop when a different brand is said. For a child who likes twirling threads, the thread could be at the finish line to motivate the child to “go” during Red Light/Green Light.

Strategies for Teaching Games

Children with ASD are less likely to learn age-appropriate play skills through mere exposure to play materials and peers using those materials. Instead, intervention is often required to teach appropriate play skills directly and explicitly to these children (Lifter, Mason & Barton, 2012; Malone and Langone, 1999). When planning for social interactions and game play with others, the child with autism should understand what to do before being placed in the social play situation and have appropriate supports to avoid failed social experiences that could decrease long-term interest in the activity. Some strategies for teaching games follow.

  • Modeling – Provide your son with opportunities to observe others playing the game. At this stage, the only expectation is that the child stays within the play area for a few minutes and observes others. No other form of participation/engagement is required. Alternatively, providing a video model of a group playing the same game will serve as a form of priming and prepare the child for the actual experience, as long as the child has learned and is competent with observing of others, in vivo or video.

 

  • Shaping – The child could initially engage only in those play actions (relevant to the game) that he can do independently. Subsequently, better performances in these actions can be modeled and expected (Ward, 2011). For example, in a game like Red Light/Green Light, your son may initially just run along with all the other players. It does not matter that he does not stop at the Red Light. But if he/she is successful at this level and shows independent participation, over the course of the next few instances, a play partner could be made to hold hands with your son and have him stop at the Red Light. Gradually, the partner could stop holding hands and independent performance in “red” and “green” can be tested. Prompting – After being given a few opportunities to observe others playing the game, some prompting might be required for the child to improve existing play behaviors. In a least-to-most (LTM) prompting hierarchy, the least intrusive prompts are provided first. More intrusive prompts are provided only if the expected behavior does not occur at the present level of prompting. For example, in the Red light/Green light game, if a child does not start running when the leader says “green,” the teacher might initially say, “What should you do now?” A gesture to move or a gentle push may be provided if the student does not respond to the teacher’s question. One LTM prompt hierarchy that is often used to teach these kinds of skills is indirect verbal, direct verbal, gestural and a physical prompt, in order of increasing intrusiveness (Cooper, Heron & Heward, 2007; Davis-Temple, Jung & Sainato, 2014; Libby, Weiss, Bancroft & Ahearn, 2008). For example, when the leader says green, an indirect verbal prompt could be “What should you do now?” while a direct verbal prompt would be saying, “Run.” An example of gestural prompt for this situation would be a hand gesture indicating the child to move in a certain direction whereas a physical prompt would be to hold the child’s arm and gently push him forward. In contrast, A most-to-least (MTL) prompting hierarchy involves providing the most intrusive prompt initially. The prompt is then faded gradually to facilitate independent performance. Using the previous example, an MTL prompt strategy would begin first with a physical prompt and then fade to a gestural prompt, direct verbal, indirect verbal prompt, and finally allow for independence as the child is successful. The prompting techniques used should be tailored to each learner. Because LTM prompting allows the child to attempt the skill independently first, MTL prompting is recommended if errors (which can be more common with LTM) have been found to impede the child’s learning. LTM can be used for children who show rapid acquisition of skills and are familiar with this prompting strategy (Libby, Weiss, Bancroft & Ahearn, 2008).

 

  • Positive Reinforcement – Try to use naturally occurring reinforcers as much as possible. Exaggeration of facial expressions and emotions, and making funny noises could be a part of the game itself to make the activity more enjoyable. For instance, stopping during the Red Light could be accompanied by exaggerated body postures and funny facial expressions. Also, if the child is familiar with a token system, it could be extended to the game as a “points table” where everyone’s scores in the game are recorded. The winner of the game might then be given a chance to choose the next activity. Reinforcers that are a natural result of play are recommended over edibles/tangible items because they can be easily transferred to the natural environment during play with typically developing peers (Stokes & Baer, 1977). Maximizing the use of activities within the game that can serve as reinforcers will promote generalization. Learning to play a game in one situation and being able to do it flexibly in other similar but different situations requires the events within the game (stopping at “Red Light” with a screeching sound like a car, jumping and saying “Woohoo” at the finish line) to serve as reinforcers as opposed to using edible or tangible items which may not be available everywhere.

 

  • Chaining – In the context of simple games with a consistent, predictable sequence of play such as “Hi-Ho-Cherry-O” or “Candy Land”, the game could be broken down into a series of simple steps (task analysis). Teaching one step at a time to mastery before introducing the other steps could simplify the game for the child. For instance, in the game Candy Land, your son might initially be required only to pick up the card and label the color, while the parent or teacher helps him complete all the additional steps on his turn (e.g., finding his piece and moving it to the corresponding color). Following success at this step, he could be expected to pick up the card, label the color and also move his piece on the board. Subsequently, telling a peer to take a turn, waiting appropriately for his turn, setting up the game and cleaning up could be added to the list of expected behaviors.

 

  • Scripting – Playing games provides numerous opportunities to develop or increase communication skills such as imitating words, making comments (“This is fun,” “Your turn”), making requests (“Help”) and initiating communication (“Let’s play”). Visual script interventions have been shown to be effective with children with autism, including those with minimal language (e.g., single spoken words, Krantz & McClannahan, 1998) and those with extensive verbal skills but poor social skills (Krantz & McClannahan, 1993). Scripts typically are a written or pictorial appropriate phrases or sentences presented during play to evoke responding. For example, a script during the Red Light/Green Light game can serve as a prompt for social greetings (“Hi, let’s play”), asking for a turn (“My turn to be the leader”) and making comments (“We’ve all stopped like statues!”).

Assessing motivation – How to tell if the child is interested?

Gauging child motivation for an activity is as important as knowing how to teach a game. Being indifferent to a child’s interest level and focusing only on the process can impede his/her ability to play games (Taylor et al., 2005). The overwhelming urge to teach the child to play by all the rules of the game on the very first opportunity can be truly aversive for the child (and the parent or teacher!) and lead to problem behavior. A closer observation might reveal that problem behavior occurs when the child’s interest in the game starts to wane and continued engagement is expected.

This challenge can be overcome by taking motivation into consideration and choosing games that have components which you know the child enjoys. This increases the likelihood that the learner will exhibit independence in at least one of the expected play behaviors during the game. The Red Light/Green Light game might work well for children who like to run or be outdoors; Simon Says might work for children who have a good imitation repertoire; Hangman may be motivating for children who like letters; and simple board games like Tummy Ache/Pizza Pizza (Orchard Toys) may be enjoyed by children who prefer visual stimuli and matching.

Additionally, here are some ways of measuring motivation during the game (Ward, 2011).

  1. Mands/Requests – Did the child request for the game after a few exposures? Did he/she ask for a turn to hold up the colored cards and say “red” and “green”?
  2. Initiations – did he/she make any initiations during the game? (e.g., asking a partner to “stop” when they didn’t)
  3. Responses to partner initiations – does the child respond to play partners? (e.g., moving forward when a partner asks him to do so)
  4. Affect – Does the child seem happy? Is he/she smiling, jumping, or laughing?
  5. Independent play actions – Does the child run by him/herself during “green”? Or go back to the starting line at the end of one round?

If the game has been broken down into doable steps with appropriate reinforcement and the child is still not initiating or displaying independent play actions, these are clear indications of low motivation in the game, which can be also due to task difficulty. If such situations persist, it is best to choose a different game. Identifying a child’s disinterest and knowing when to stop, or modifying a game in a manner that might enhance motivation, can facilitate success.  Motivation can be fleeting: what was fun yesterday might not be fun today. But being proactive about gauging these variations is what should be lasting.

Summary

We have learned many effective ways to teach games over the years (Jung, 2013; Krantz & McClannahan, 1998; Maurice, Green & Luce, 1996; Stahmer & Schreibman, 1992). Since playing games is an important activity among typically developing children, play activities serve as an opportunity for children with ASD to learn appropriate social behaviors (Davis-Temple, Jung & Sainato, 2014). Whatever the goals associated with each game, adding “having fun” as one of them, and identifying and monitoring observable measures of enjoyment, may be the key to successful game instruction. Being process-oriented and showing our kids that games can be fun is more important than playing the game the right way.

References

Baker, M.J., Koegel, R., & Koegel, L. (1998). Increasing the social behavior of young children with autism using their obsessive behaviors. The Journal of the Association of Persons with Severe Handicaps. 23, 300-308.

Bruner, J. (1975). From communication to language: A psychological perspective. Cognition. 3, 255-287.

Cooper, J.O., Heron, T. E., & Heward, W. L. (2007). Applied behavior analysis (2nd edition). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson.

Davis-Temple, J., Jung, S., & Sainato, D. M. (2014). Teaching young children with special needs and their peers to play board games: Effects of a least to most prompting procedure to increase independent performance. Behavior Analysis in Practice, 7(1), 21–30.

Jung, S., & Sainato, D. M. (2013). Teaching play skills to children with autism. Journal of Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities. 38(1), 74-90.

Koegel, R., Fredeen, R., Kim, S., Danial, J., Rubinstein, D., & Koegel, L. (2012). Using perseverative interests to improve interactions between adolescents with autism and their typical peers in school settings. Journal of Positive Behavior Interventions, 14(3), 133–141.

Krantz, P. J., & McClannahan, L. E. (1993). Teaching children with autism to initiate to peers: Effects of a script-fading procedure. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 26(1), 121–132.

Krantz, P. J., & McClannahan, L. E. (1998). Social interaction skills for children with autism: A script-fading procedure for beginning readers. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 31(2), 191–202.

Libby, M. E., Weiss, J. S., Bancroft, S., & Ahearn, W. H. (2008). A comparison of most-to-least and least-to-most prompting on the acquisition of solitary play skills. Behavior Analysis in Practice, 1(1), 37–43.

Lifter, K., Mason, E. J., & Barton E. E. (2012). Children’s play: Where we have been and where we could go. Journal of Early Intervention33,281–297.

Malone, D. M., & Langone, J. (1999). Teaching object-related play skills to preschool children with developmental concerns. International Journal of Disability, Development and Education. 46, 325-336.

Maurice, C., Green, G., & Luce, S.C. (1996). Behavioral intervention for young children with autism: A manual for parents and professionals. Austin, TX, US: PRO-ED.

Stahmer, A. C., Akshoomoff, N., & Cunningham, A. B. (2011). Inclusion for toddlers with autism spectrum disorders: The first ten years of a community program. Autism: The International Journal of Research and Practice, 15(5), 625–641.

Stahmer, A. C., & Schreibman, L. (1992). Teaching children with autism appropriate play in unsupervised environments using a self-management treatment package. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 25(2), 447–459.

Stokes, T. F., & Baer, D. M. (1977). An implicit technology of generalization. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 10(2), 349–367.

Taylor, B.A., Hoch, H., Potter, B., Rodriguez, A., Spinnato, D., & Kalaigian, M. (2005). Manipulating establishing operations to promote initiations toward peers in children with autism. Research in Developmental Disabilities. 26, 385-392.

Ward, S. (2011). What you need to know about motivation and teaching games: An in-depth analysis. Lulu.


About The Authors

Maithri Sivaraman is a BCBA with a Masters in Psychology from the University of Madras and holds a Graduate Certificate in ABA from the University of North Texas. She currently runs ‘Tendrils Centre for Autism Research and Intervention’ which is a registered resource center providing behavior analytic services to families in Chennai, India, conducting workshops, and supervising students pursuing certification. She has presented papers at international conferences, published articles  in peer-reviewed journals and has been authoring a column for the ‘Autism Network’, India’s quarterly autism journal. As an Extern at the Association for Science in Autism Treatment she has been involved in the international dissemination of evidence-based treatments writing articles for their newsletter and responding to media reports that highlight treatments for autism.

Ruth Donlin, M.S., is a Board Member of ASAT since 2010 and on the Public Relations Committee. She is a consultant in private practice based in New York, and has provided consultation to schools, agencies, and home programs for children and adults on the autism spectrum for 20 years. She presents on a variety of topics such as managing challenging behaviors, using visual supports, team dynamics, and social skill development at conferences regionally, nationally, and internationally. Ruth is Past-President of the Autism Special Interest Group (SIG) of the Association of Behavior Analysis International.

Pick Of The Week: Introducing our brand new Play Idea Cards app!

TOW4

Our new app is a complete play skills curriculum. As guided by evidence-based intervention principles, the curriculum strengthens students’ pretend and innovative play skills, all for just $9.99!

 

Evidence-Based Intervention
We give you a step-by-step guide on how to develop your child’s play. Practical and easy to follow, it’s also based on years of research that breaks learning pretend play into 14 levels. Find out what level your child is currently on, and what to do next. Clear instruction and easy, executable ideas help your child play with toys at home.

Easy To Follow Play Idea Cards
Our flash cards are easy to use while you (parents, therapists, & teachers) play with your child. Use our suggested play activities, or create your own based upon the ideas from the cards. Most of our ideas come from toys you already have in your home, so start today!

Key Features

  • A clear instruction guide developed by experts in the field of ASD
  • 14 step developmental play scale that works for any child with any language capability
  • Simple play ideas using toys you already have at home!
  • 100+ ideas for how to play with your child
  • An outdoor option for every level so you can take your play outside!

Guide your young learner down the path of purposeful play! 

Autism Awareness Month: Free Social Skills Fortune Teller Activity

IMG_0882-764x1024While these fortune tellers may not be able to tell your future, they are sure to help your children with autism develop their social skills!  This free printable, created by Joel Shaul from Autism Teaching Strategies, makes social learning fun by having students pair up and offer conversation starters using a Social Skills Fortune Teller.  All you have to do is print, cut, fold and play!

The activity comes with separate templates to make six different fortune tellers.  Each of the templates help students work on the following skills:

  • Asking questions
  • Giving compliments
  • Talking about emotions
  • As well as self-help strategies for teasing and bullying.

For further tips, instructions for use, and to download this free printable, click here and don’t forget to share all the other fun ways you and your students have fun developing social skills by leaving a comment below!

Pick of the Week: “On My Own” Activity Kits

Teach important daily living, vocational, and social skills that pave the way to independence and success to young learners with these brand new On My Own activity kits. Early learners can follow the visual cues and step-by-step directions to complete activities and art projects related to a variety of skills in daily life, such as cooking, setting the table, and creating art projects that develop gross and fine motor skills.

This week only, use our promo code ONMYOWN to take 15%* off either the On My Own: Year-Round Art Fun or the On My Own: Art, Cooking & Life Skills learning kits.

In On My Own: Art, Cooking & Life Skills, each activity is shown completed and is followed by a checklist of materials along with the directions. Young learners will be able to complete the tasks independently as they develop important vocational and recreational skills.

In On My Own: Year-Round Art Fun, learners will get to complete various arts and crafts projects independently, pairing visual cues and text from 30 different activity cards, while gaining confidence.

Don’t forget to mention or apply our promo code ONMYOWN this week only to save 15%* on either or both of these learning kits when you check out online or over the phone with us!

Increasing Play with Unit Blocks – Free Download

Blocks PileSymbolic play refers to a child’s ability to use one object or action to represent a different object or action within imaginary play. The symbolic play skill that involves object substitution typically begins to emerge around 18 months. For example, you might observe a child using an empty box for a “hat” or an overturned bucket for a “drum.” Blocks are a mainstay in early childhood classrooms because the benefits are innumerable. Block play can help to facilitate cooperation, visuo-spatial skills, problem solving ability, social skills, and language development, and is a good predictor of future mathematical abilities.

One hallmark of the diagnostic criteria for autism spectrum disorder is a presence of “persistent deficits in social communication and social interaction across multiple contexts, as manifested by difficulties in sharing imaginative play or in making friends.” Additionally, rigid thinking patterns may make symbolic play difficult for children with autism as they might view objects in a limited way that makes it difficult to pretend a block is something other than a block. Blocks on ShelfSince unit blocks are a huge component of early childhood classrooms everywhere one could imagine that exposure to them and some level of proficiency opens up huge social opportunities for learners with autism spectrum disorders with their mainstream peers in the classroom.

Some learners will require scaffolding in order to progress from the use of literal props within pretend play to object substitutions. Research suggests that systematic prompting is a common component of successful interventions used for teaching play.  Depending on the learner, various types of prompts will be used as you systematically move from most intrusive to least intrusive prompt levels. Sometimes, a learner begins to respond to natural cues before you have moved through each prompt level. However, for learners that require support froma visual prompt you can attach drawings of objects onto the blocks and then systematically fade them out. Once the learner begins to consistently use the blocks with the attached images you can use stimulus fading procedure to fade out the visual prompt. This can be done by photocopying the image and systematically changing the lightness until eventually the learner is presented with just the block.

Below you will find downloadable images in the shape of unit blocks to help you facilitate symbolic play with a learner who requires visual prompts. The images are to scale and just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to all of the possibilities. It is important to teach various object substitutions for each block shape so that the skill is generalized. In a classroom where the curriculum is organized thematically, you could attach a few visuals to various blocks each time the theme changes to encourage symbolic play for the whole class.

Click here to download our Free Unit Blocks Template!

References

Cook, D. (1996). Mathematics sense making and role play in the nursery school. Early Childhood Development and Care, 121, 55-65.

Wolfgang, C., Stannard, L. & Jones, I. (2001). Block play performance among preschoolers as a predictor of later school achievement in mathematics. Journal of Research in Childhood Education, 15(20): 173-180.

Smilansky, S., & Shefatya, L. (1990). Facilitating play: A medium for promoting cognitive, socioemotional and academic development in young children. Gaithersburg, MD: Psychosocial & Educational Publications.

Christakis, D.A., Zimmerman F.J., & Garrison M.M. (2007). Effect of block play on language acquisition and attention in toddlers: a pilot randomized controlled trial. Arch Pediatr Adolesc Med. 161(10):967-71.

Pepler, D.J., & Ross, H.S. (1981(. The effects of play on convergent and divergent problem solving. Child Development, 52(4): 1202-1210.

Lang, R., O’Reilly, M., Rispoli, M., Shogren, K., et al. (2009). Review of interventions to increase functional and symbolic play in children with autism. Education and Training in Developmental Disabilities, 44(4), 481– 492.

Cooper, J. O., Heron, T. E., & Heward, W. L. (2007). Applied behavior analysis, 2nd ed. Upper Saddle River, N.J.: Pearson Prentice Hall.


Written by Stacy Asay, LMSW

Stacy is a licensed social worker, providing home and school based services to children and their families in the New York City area. With nearly 16 years of experience, her work with special needs children integrates a strengths-based, holistic approach to child and family augmented with the tools of Applied Behavior Analysis, a methodology that allows for reliable measurement, objective evaluation of behaviors, and the systematic teaching of language and learning skills.  This results in an individualized curriculum that equips children with the tools they need for learning and living while honoring their unique spirit.

Guest Article: “Promoting Socialization in Children with Autism Through Play” by Julie Russell

We’re so pleased to bring you this guest post by Julie Russell, Educational Director at the Brooklyn Autism Center (BAC). BAC is a not-for-profit ABA school serving children aged 5–21. Here, Julie describes specific, simple strategies for promoting socialization in children on the spectrum.

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Promoting Socialization in Children with Autism Through Play
by Julie Russell, Brooklyn Autism Center

Socialization – defined as a continuing process where an individual acquires a personal identity and learns the norms, values, behavior, and appropriate skills – is a vital part of life. It is also a particularly difficult skill for individuals with autism. Children with autism often struggle with initiating conversation, requesting information, making contextual comments, and listening and responding to others. These difficulties can interfere with the development of friendships for children on the spectrum.

The best way to improve socialization in children with autism is to emphasize play. There are several strategies to teach play skills to children on the spectrum that can help them improve socialization and develop friendships.

One method of teaching socialization is to condition the typically-developing peer as a reinforcer by pairing the peer with items and activities that are reinforcing for the child with Autism. The peer can give the child with Autism a preferred edible or join in on a preferred activity for the child with autism. If Ben’s (the child with autism) favorite edible is Twizzlers and his preferred activity is completing a puzzle, Adam (his typically developing peer) can offer Ben a Twizzler and join in on completing the puzzle. The typically developing peer is then associated with both the preferred edible and the preferred activity, making Adam a reinforcer for Ben.

This method is a great way to make the peer more desirable for the child with autism. The items or activities used for conditioning should only consist of items/activities that the child with autism already enjoys. When trying to introduce a new item or activity to the child with autism, peers should not be included right away. Trying to teach how to play with the item and the peer simultaneously can be confusing and over-stimulating for the child with autism. The child with autism should first be taught how to play appropriately with the age-appropriate activity during individual instruction, and then the peer can be included in the activity once mastery of the activity has been demonstrated.

Another way to promote socialization is to engage the child with autism in cooperative games, or any activity that requires interaction where each child has a role that is needed in order to complete the activity. This way, the motivation to engage with the typically developing peer will be higher. When teaching the child with autism how to play cooperative games, such as board games, you can include teaching skills that target turn taking and sharing. Children with autism (or any child) may have difficulties with giving up preferred items/activities, so these may be challenging skills to teach. In order to teach these skills with success, begin by having the child with autism share and take turns with non-preferred items/activities, then gradually fade in more highly preferred items to take turns and share.

Evidence-based practices such as social stories, peer modeling, and video modeling are also excellent methods to promote socialization in children with autism. Reading social stories and watching “expert” peers interact will allow children with autism to view and understand appropriate behavior before interacting with a new peer or practicing skills such as turn-taking, requesting information, and listening and responding to others.

All of the above methods of promoting socialization are used in Brooklyn Autism Center’s after school program BAC Friends, which pairs our students with typically developing peers from neighboring elementary and middle schools. We also provide additional opportunities for our students to practice peer socialization (along with academic work) during our reverse inclusion program with Hannah Senesh Community Day School. These methods combined with enthusiastic peers have helped our students improve their socialization skills and develop meaningful friendships.

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WRITTEN BY JULIE RUSSELL, MS, BCBA

Julie holds an M.S. in Applied Behavior Analysis from Simmons College in Boston, Massachusetts and received her BCBA in 2009. She has over 10 years of experience working with children with autism and related developmental differences in centers, schools, school districts and home-based programs. Julie received her supervision hours for board certification in behavior analysis by Dr. Nathan Blenkush, Ph.D., BCBA from JRC in Boston, Massachusetts. She was a Clinical Supervisor at ACES (Center for Applied Behavior Analysis) in San Diego California and Clinical Supervisor at the ELIJA School in Levittown, NY before joining the Brooklyn Autism Center as Educational Director.

Modified Instructions for Parachute Play

We’re excited to bring you the sixth installment of our series of Modified Instructions, created by Sam Blanco, BCBAIn this installment, we’re introducing Sam’s Modified Instructions for Parachute Play. Our bright and colorful parachutes are perfect for motivating young learners during the summer holidays.

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Pick of the Week: I Can Do That! – Learn prepositions and self-awareness with a Dr. Seuss classic!

Practice motor skills, learn prepositions, and develop self-confidence with the award-winning Cat in the Hat I Can Do That! Game. This week only, save 15%* on your order of the I Can Do That! Game by entering or mentioning promo code CATHAT4 at check-out!

This wacky, fun-filled game will have young players moving all about as the Cat in the Hat comes to play. Flip over three cards to create a new challenge. Can you slide under the Trick-a-ma-stick with the toy boat on your head, or jump up and down with the cake between your elbows? Players will have a blast as they practice early reading skills and develop motor skills, understanding of prepositions, and self-confidence.

The game comes with: 1 Trick-a-ma-stick, 9 game pieces of objects straight from the Cat in the Hat story (e.g. cake, fish, boat, ball, book, gown, fan, toy man, rake), 1 sand timer, 33 game cards, and 1 manual.

Remember to redeem your 15% savings* on the Cat in the Hat I Can Do That! Game this week by using promo code CATHAT4 at check-out!

*Offer is valid until 11:59pm EDT on July 22, 2014. Not compatible with any other offers. Be sure there are no spaces or dashes in your code at check out!

Pick of the Week: Parachute Play—Reinforce a Variety of Skills with Summer Fun & Games

Parachute-6footThe end of the school year means more sunshine and fun outdoors. Start the summer holidays with our bright and colorful parachute, and save 15%* when you order it this week with promo code PCHUTE2! The parachute comes in two different sizes—our 6-foot parachute fits up to 6 (pictured left) and our 12-foot parachute (pictured at the bottom) fits up to 8 children for play.

Parachute Play has something for every child. You can teach colors, peer play, and basic prepositions of “over” and “under”. Children love sweeping the parachute up in the air and watching it flutter down. Best of all, it’s just plain fun for all of us!

And if you’re feeling like you should be focusing on school readiness and not play, the Parachute can help there too! You can download a copy of our Modified Instructions for Parachute Play written by our BCBA Sam Blanco for a variety of games modified for learners of different levels. Below are also some of Sam’s tips on various skills that can be reinforced with the simple yet wondrous parachute:

  • Manding (Requesting) – I frequently use a parachute to have my early learners mand for actions. For example, I’ll have the learner lie down on the parachute, then they have to mand for me to “pick up the handle,” “swing,” “ready, set, go,” or “stop.” I also use the parachute (or a blanket) to teach early learners with autism how to request a parent’s attention. I will have the parent hide behind the parachute, and when the child says “Mommy” or “Daddy” the parent will drop the parachute so he/she is immediately visible and give the child lots of attention in the form of tickles, kisses, verbal praise, etc.
  • Comparisons/Adjectives – To help students understand the concept of big and little, I will have the children stand around the sides of the parachute holding onto it with their hands. I will place an object on the parachute, and we will bounce the parachute up and down to try to get the object to fall into the hole in the center of the parachute. Some objects will fall, but some will be too big to fall into the hole. I will ask the students why the object fell or did not fall.
  • Sorting – I will place several colorful objects on the parachute. We will then bounce the parachute up and down playfully. After a 30 seconds to a minute, we will put the parachute back on the floor, and the student will have to move each object onto a panel of the parachute that matches in color.
  • Identifying Body Parts – Because the parachute has a hole in the middle, I will sometimes use it for identifying body parts. The learner can lie down on the floor. Then I will put the parachute on top of them. I’ll pretend I’m looking for them (for example, “Where is Charlie?”) Then I’ll position the parachute so that one part (such as their hand or their nose) is clearly visible. I’ll lightly touch it and say “What is that?” and have the student label nose or hand or elbow, etc. Once the learner has an idea of the game, I may let them initiate it, or have them say “Find my nose” and I’ll place the parachute so their nose is visible.
  • Song Fill-ins – I like to sing songs while shaking or spinning the parachute. For students with autism or other language delays who struggle with this skill, the parachute can be a great motivator to help with song fill-ins and other intraverbal skills. I will sing the song while shaking or spinning the parachute, and I’ll stop singing AND moving the parachute when I want the child to fill in a word. As soon as the child fills in the word, I will begin singing and moving the parachute again. For many students, this is more motivating than a high five or saying “good job.”
  • Quick Responding – If you are working with learners with autism, the absence of quick responding is sometimes a serious barrier to learning. I have found that using the parachute is a good way to motivate the student to respond quickly when presented with at ask by using it as described above with the song fill-ins. Once I am getting quick responding with the parachute, I quickly begin to work on generalizing the skill to other environments (such as the table or during a floor activity).

Don’t forget to save 15%* this week only on your Parachute when you enter or mention promo code PCHUTE2 at check out!

*Offer is valid until 11:59pm EDT on July 8th, 2014. Not compatible with any other offers. Be sure there are no spaces or dashes in your code at check out!