The summer camp diving board was the perfect opportunity to work on taking turns. The counselors eagerly stood beside the pool and watched Jason waiting in line at the diving board. Jason had been working on taking turns all year long at school, but it had not been easy. He began to bounce impatiently as he waited his turn. His friend in line told him, “just a little bit longer.” Finally the diving board was open, and Jason was next. Pulling his goggles over his head, he took two big steps, and hopped in with a big splash. As his head popped out of the water, everyone cheered. This was the first time Jason had successfully waited in line to jump in the pool.
Social skills, like learning to wait in line and taking turns, do not come naturally to many children with autism. As with reading and math skills, finding ways to maintain social skills during summer vacation is an additional challenge. Creating ways to target social communication skills during summer can help maintain or even improve social skills.
Why Social Skills?
Many students with ASD have social-communication goals as part of their individualized education programs (IEPs). The development of social communication skills can lend itself to making friends, communicating likes and needs, and playing and sharing experiences with others. These types of goals can range from answering questions with sufficient detail, initiating towards peers, or engaging with peers during recess or lunch times.
Connecting Over Common Interests
What are your child’s interests and strengths? Use this time to discuss and survey your child to help them identify their interests and summer goals. This is a great opportunity to help your child practice self-advocacy and encourage them to be involved in the process of selecting summer camps or activities they would like to do. Providing choices and visuals of different activities and places can help children with ASD make decisions.
Facilitate Peer Interactions
Peers can be successful models and encourage children with ASD to ask or answer questions and play turn-taking games. Training them to interact and prompt social interactions in simple ways is a great way to encourage social communication without depending on an adult.
Before camp starts, have the director identify a peer in your child’s group to show them around the camp and see where everything is. This also helps introduce your child to new games and activities before the camp starts.
The buddy system is another fun way to include peers during transitions from one activity to the next. Counselors can have everyone find a buddy to walk with and provide a prompt for conversation, “tell them about your pet,” for example, or “can you both find something yellow on the walk?”
Being Social while Social Distancing
This summer provides us with the extra challenge of socializing safely due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Every county has outlined and provided guidelines for what is safe for your community. If your child is unable to participate in summer camps due to social distancing and community guidelines, try to find other fun and creative ways to foster social skills at home.
- Use Zoom or Facetime to connect with others. The structure that playing games or doing scavenger hunts (e.g., find something in your house that is small and yellow) provides is a great way to start brief social and virtual interactions with others. Keep Zoom dates short and successful and build from there.
- Make connecting part of your weekly routine. Schedule Zoom calls with classmates, family members, or friends. Parent support groups can include weekly video calls for their children as well. Keeping it consistent is key.
- Playing outside is another great option to keep social. Outdoor play is an opportunity to practice turn taking, pretend play, increase exercise, and communicate with peers. If possible and safe to do so, use preferred interests and places as a way to target social skills. An aquarium, beach, or zoo can be a great place to practice social communication with other peers, learn, and have fun too.
In this time of greater isolation and distance from friends, families, teachers, and classmates, building connections with others is even more important. Summer is the perfect time to prioritize practicing social skills. Take the time to help your child figure out their interests and strengths and let them create their own summer goals. Be creative in the ways they socialize and connect with others. Most importantly, help your child find ways to have fun and shine!
Lindsay Glugatch is a doctoral student at the University of Oregon Special Education program. She is a board certified behavior analyst (BCBA) and the program director of HEDCO Autism Research and Teaching Center. She is also a lecturer for UC Santa Barbara Extension Applied Behavior Analysis program. She is one of the authors of Targeting Social IEP Goals in Summer Camps. OAR funded her research project evaluating a novel treatment package on including siblings in autism intervention.