Is your child:
Many children have difficulty with reciprocal play. By grade school, we should see children playing reciprocally. They are engaging in games like tag, kickball, and Marco/Polo that have rules and winners and losers. Children are expected to take turns and to be a good sport.
It is concerning when some children are oblivious to these social rules. They may only see it from their perspective; therefore, losing, playing another person’s game, or letting someone else go first may be intolerable.
Perhaps your child stalks off the playground anytime the kids won’t play Harry Potter. He’d rather sit alone on the bench and count butterflies than play a game of tag. Maybe when he plays pretend he always has to be a certain character and cannot see why it might be good to give someone else a turn. Conversely, maybe your child is sweet and oblivious and constantly is taken advantage of by other children.
Maybe your child never gets a turn and allows others to take the lead and have all the control. Either of these opposite situations indicates that your child is not engaging in reciprocal play.
Clinically, social engagement should continue to become more sophisticated as a child gets older. Children should demonstrate more and more skills in social perspective taking. Children should be able to read other children’s nonverbal cues and know what might hurt someone else’s feelings. In this way, children are able to become savvy at sharing, turn taking, and back and forth social interaction [4, 5].
Children should begin to make friends and have close friends who play together frequently and share common interests. Children should discriminate between friends (e.g., “I’d like to have Sally over today because she loves dolls, and I just got a new American Girl doll”).
Children with Autism Spectrum Disorders often lack social reciprocity. Cooperative and pretend play are evaluated through tasks on the ADOS-2 and through questions in interviews and on rating scales completed by parents. Children with Autism tend to have challenges with flexible, cooperative play and perspective taking.
One technique that clinicians use to assess for reciprocity is called ‘dropping bids.’ Clinicians might say, “The strangest thing happened to me today!” in order to see if the child will ask for information about the ‘strange thing’ or offer an empathetic response like, “Whoa! What happened?” Children who do not respond to bids are often showing signs of poor social reciprocity.
At home, you may notice that your child has to win every board game. A loss will send him or her into a temper tantrum, guaranteed. He or she is not able to take the perspective of the other player and to feel happy for him, knowing that he would like to win too. Sharing interests, toys, and ideas involves a degree of cognitive flexibility. The child has to stop to think about what another child likes better. Maybe he likes to play trucks but the other child wants to do a puzzle together.
In order for your child to have friends, the child would have to be willing to try the other child’s idea, at least occasionally. The author of this article has heard the question, “But, what if my child is a leader?” Yes, it is okay for your child to be in charge sometimes. However, the other children need some wiggle room, or they will give up on the relationship.
The book, “Big Dog…Little Dog” is a delightful illustration of this idea. The big dog likes one color; the little dog likes the other. The story starts out, “Fred and Ted were friends. Fred was big. Ted was little. Fred always had money. Ted never had money… When they walked in the rain, Fred was wet. Ted was dry.” The moral of the story is that even very different ‘animals’ can be friends.
Teach your child the same. Make sure that your child understands that, in order to be friends, he or she will have to be flexible. Give and take is part of friendship. Say something like,
“It cannot always be ‘your way’, but it will be more fun with a friend.”
The skills of social reciprocity and play skills need to be taught for many children. Parents can provide opportunities for guidance and practice. Often with ample time and supervision in social reciprocity, a child’s social skills will improve. Plan social activities for your child around his or her interests. Join a Lego or Robotics club; pursue the swim team or horseback riding. Find ways to have your child engage socially without leading to failure.
When activities are structured and turn-taking, back-and-forth interaction can be modeled, then children can improve their social skills. You may choose to avoid soccer teams or baseball teams, which are large activities that require a lot of cooperation.
Find something with an individual component but also social opportunities. Social groups in your community or at your child’s school may be a way for him or her to learn social skills and have these skills modeled for him or her.
Provide breaks and down time, but give your child social learning experiences. Foster and improve on those friendships that seem to be most connected. If your child loves Minecraft and finds another avid fan, work to get the boys together often and to guide them to maintain a friendship beyond just chatting at school.
If your child is struggling with a similar problem, not directly addressed in this section, see the list below for links to information about other related symptom areas.
Children who have significant problems in this area may have any of the following potential disabilities. *Note, this does not serve as a diagnosis in any way. See ‘Where to Go for Help’ section for professionals who can diagnose or provide a referral.
If your child is struggling with this symptom to the point that it is getting in the way of his learning, relationships, or happiness, the following professionals could help; they may offer diagnosis, treatment, or both.
These professionals may recommend or administer the following tests for this symptom:
 Kroncke, Willard, & Huckabee (2016). Assessment of autism spectrum disorder: Critical issues in clinical forensic and school settings. Springer, San Francisco.
 Baker, Jed. (Retrieved 2017). Social skills books and resources for ASD.
 Ozonoff, Sally & Dawson, Geraldine & McPartland, James C. (2014). A parent’s guide to high functioning autism spectrum disorder: How to meet the challenges and help your child thrive.
 Berns, Roberta M. (2010). Child, family, school, community: Socialization and support.
 Trawick-Smith, Jeffrey (2013). Early childhood development: A multicultural perspective.
 Madrigal, S., & Winner, M.G. (2008). Superflex. A superhero social thinking curriculum.
 UCLA PEERS Clinic https://www.semel.ucla.edu/peers
 Barton, Erin. Educating Young Children with Autism Spectrum Disorders.
 Giler, Janet Z. (2000). Socially ADDept: A manual for parents of children with ADHD and / or learning disabilities.
 Giler, Janet Z. (2011). Socially ADDept: Teaching social skills to children with ADHD, LD, and Asperger’s.
 Eastman, P.D. (2003) Big Dog…Little Dog.
 Brown, Laurie Krasny & Brown, Marc (2001). How to be a friend: A guide to making friends and keeping them (Dino life guides for families).
 Cooper, Scott (2005). Speak up and get along!: Learn the mighty might, thought chop, and more tools to make friends, stop teasing, and feel good about yourself.
 Cook, Julia (2012). Making Friends is an art!: A children’s book on making friends (Happy to be, you and me).
Name: Children playing marbles, activity of student in Thailand.
Image ID: 243562870 (Big Stock)
By: Still AB
Licensed: October 29, 2016
Stylized by Katie Harwood, exclusively for CLEAR Child Psychology