Is your child:
Some children struggle to play with other kids. What’s the matter? Your child may be having difficulty with companionship. From approximately ages two to three, children tend to move from parallel play, that is, playing beside but not engaging with other children, to cooperative play, which establishes companionship, i.e., friendship.
So, playing side by side with little social interaction is fine for your toddler, but by age 4 or 5, we would begin to be concerned that cooperative play is not emerging. Some children in later preschool years roam the playground alone, searching for bugs and dirt. They seem to be in their own world, and they do not run with the pack or engage with peers.
Other children play close by but don’t pay much attention to the other children and do not try to play with them. When guided to join the group, this child might join and follow quietly, or he might steal the ball and run away with the game not knowing that he is not playing “with” the kids. As other children start to appear frustrated, our game disruptor might be totally oblivious to the situation.
Clinically, social engagement from the preschool years on should become more sophisticated. Children should move from parallel play, think the 18-month-old sitting beside another child both stacking blocks, to cooperative play, think the 5-year-old building a Lego tower with his friends . 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. One way to consider these concepts is to think, “Does my child play with other kids or just chill on the sidelines?”
At a birthday party, can your child become overwhelmed? Perhaps he or she hits other children when they take the toys your child wants. Your child may cover his or her ears or stay by your side like glue. Children with Autism tend to have challenges with flexible, cooperative play.
Some children are very creative when it comes to an area of interest, like recreating trench warfare from WWI. When given a few action figures, the same child may note inaccuracies like “This guy doesn’t even have eyes.” or “Dinosaurs are extinct. They don’t have a pet dinosaur.” Other times, your child’s play may be very bossy. He may like younger kids who will follow orders or much older kids who are very flexible and understand that a younger child may be less mature and may need to get his way.
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, and 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.
There are a variety of great resources for social skills to help children learn about the importance of polite greetings, social smiles, active listening and conversation skills [9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14].
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, Anna, Willard, Marcy & Huckabee, Helena (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.
 UCSB PEERS Clinic https://www.semel.ucla.edu/peers
 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.
 Barton, Erin. Educating Young Children with Autism Spectrum Disorders.
 Baker, Jed. (2001). The social skills picture book: Teaching play, emotion, and communication to children with autism.
 Baker, Jed. (2006) Social skills picture book for high school and beyond.
 Gray, Carol & Attwood, Tony (2010). The New Social Story Book, Revised and Expanded 10th Anniversary Edition: Over 150 Social Stories that Teach Everyday Social Skills to Children with Autism or Asperger’s Syndrome, and their Peers.
 Madrigal, Stephanie & Winner, Michelle G. (2008). Superflex. A superhero social thinking curriculum.
 McKinnon, Kelly & Krempa, Janis L. (2002). Social Skills Solutions: A Hands-On Manual for Teaching Social Skills to Children with Autism.
 Mendler, Allen (2013). Teaching your students how to have a conversation.
Name: Cute european toddlers in kindergarten.
Image ID: 68315230 (Shutterstock)
By: Kaesler Media
Previously licensed on: November 3, 2016
Stylized by Katie Harwood, exclusively for CLEAR Child Psychology