Wondering how to work on social skills without social opportunities? You aren't alone. While there are no easy answers, especially with the emergence of new variants and new guidance, we have ideas on how to work on social skills in preparation for the return of the after-school playdate.
Many parents (myself included) have been performing mental gymnastics for the past year and a half. The risk/benefit analysis that we do on the daily starts with a series of questions. "Can I take my son to that birthday party?" "Can I throw him a birthday party?" "Can he EVER go to a birthday party again?!" These questions become even more loaded for parents with kids with disabilities such as autism. While no two people with autism are alike, social difficulties can often cause difficulties making and keeping friends even when the desire for friendship is present. Social and communication challenges are not just experienced by people with autism. People with and without disabilities can find it difficult to overcome social anxiety, which can be exacerbated by long periods without social contact and social practice.
We recommend working with your BCBA to identify one to two key skills to practice when opportunities arise. BCBAs are trained to assess social skills and develop programs to teach and practice in meaningful ways. While practicing in an ABA therapy session is a great start, research has shown that people, especially people with learning differences, need ample opportunity to practice across people, environments, and situations. Knowing what skills your child is presently working on and having a plan for how to help guide practice is where the lifelong learning truly occurs.
However, we know that finding safe ways to practice during an ever evolving pandemic is the actual hard part. While there are no perfect solutions to keeping social skills sharp during COVID, we recommend trying to find alternative, safer ways to contrive practice opportunities. We've listed safe, safer, and safest options for you to explore.
While guidelines are changing every day, one general consensus remains: outdoor activities are generally safer than indoor gatherings. Consider joining an outdoor camp or after school activity with same aged peers or meet up with friends at the park. We recognize it can be harder to control other people's behavior in public settings. We've had luck going to the park during "off" times, such as early in the morning before the work day starts. We are willing to bet that other COVID conscience families would welcome a socially distanced wave hello or conversation a few swings apart.
If going to public parks or outdoor camps isn't an option at this time, consider a socially distanced outdoor playdate with one other likeminded family. While it can feel like you are the only one continuing to follow safety guidelines, there are other families that are also in search of a safe option for their littles. This might take some searching, but consider asking social media groups you trust or other parents during virtual Meet the Teacher events. There are a few fringe benefits to limiting your outing to one other child. With a one on one playdate, it can be easier to support your own child in practicing his or her newly acquired skills. One on one outings also lend themselves to more direct play together. Small groups of children can move quickly in conversations and activities. One on one interactions can allow for a more focused, controlled environment to practice and learn.
One way to get social while remaining safe is to join a virtual social skills group. Mission Cognition offers virtual social skills groups that are tailored to your child's specific needs and skills. They operate a "best fit" grouping system that places your child with other kids that have needs and strengths that will work well together. While we haven't personally attended one of their groups, we've heard nothing but amazing things about the virtual FUN kids of all ages are having! Check out their website to learn more: https://missioncognition.com/virtual-social-groups
We know firsthand how difficult it is navigating parenthood in a pandemic and applaud you all for making decisions that are in best interest of your family and society as a whole. What other ways have you found to "get social" while staying physically apart?