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How to make the most of a social outing

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A child’s learning does not just stop at school or the therapy session. Providing opportunities for your child to learn and practice their social skills is a great strategy for continued learning. Setting up a play-date or social outing for your child is a great start, but there is more you can do to help facilitate appropriate social interaction and social skills while allowing the natural peer interaction to take place.

Children age 2-6

For parents with younger children, it is important to take time and observe the children’s play. Children at this age can have unique styles of play, and do not always use logical play. Instead of immediately joining the children in play, spend time observing first. Watch how the rules of the play are established, and what the object or goal of the play is. Study how they transition between play, and what themes they frequent (Do they always play some version of house, or do they lean more towards adventures?) Once you’ve taken some time to understand their style of play, join in, but let the kids take the lead. Asking questions is a great way to engage more conversation in play while still leaving the control to the kids. As an example:

Three kids are pretending to cook in the sand box, and you join. Questions you can ask: “Can I play?” “Who can I pretend to be?” “What are you making?” “What should I make?” “Who is going to eat the food?” “Where should we take the food?” What do we cook next?”

Another great technique to naturally model appropriate social play is to think out loud. Narrate everything you are doing while playing.

Hmm… I want to dig a tunnel, but I need the blue shovel and Jared has the blue shovel. Maybe I could ask him to take a turn with it. Jared, can I take a turn with the blue shovel?”

Oh no! I want to play on the swings, but everyone is playing in the sand. I really wish I had someone to swing with. Maybe I could ask someone to come play with me! Caleb, do you want to play on the swings with me?”

Remember, when working with kids, less is more. The goal is to create natural social interaction, and it’s important not to over-pathologize your child’s behavior. Children do not always say “thank you” after every single toy exchange, and do not compliment their peers on everything they do. It is also typical for children at this age to play alone or have moments of parallel play (children playing adjacent to each other). Don’t feel like you need to be maintaining constant dialog. When the environment is relaxed a child will feel more comfortable going beyond their typical boundaries.

Children age 7-12

Parents with middle-aged children should focus on building self-esteem and competency during social outings. This is the age where children develop of sense of self, which makes modeling appropriate social behavior important. A great way to do this is to be overly socially appropriate yourself. For most, social skills come naturally so we do not even realize the different social behaviors we are exhibiting. As a parent modeling appropriate social behavior, the goal is to expand these interactions and amplify them. To provide an example:

Two individuals, John and Gary are at a bowling alley. John sees Gary pick up his ball and start walking towards the lane. This triggers John to think, “Oh, it must be Garys turn.” John then glances up at the screen to confirm his thought that it was, in fact, Garys turn. After Gary sends his last ball down the lane, he casually tosses a hand up, which John meets with his own. Without checking the screen, John walks up to the lane for his turn.

A child with ASD may not see all these subtle social interactions that take place, and deciphering when it is okay to approach the lane, who’s turn it is, or what to say to a friend may not be so obvious. This short interaction can be amplified and expanded by being curious, asking questions, and making observations. For example, to prompt a child to look at whose turn it is or stay focused on a game, a parent could ask the child, “Whose turn is it? Do you know whose turn it is, Molly?” A child at this age will be more receptive to the former approach versus, “Molly, it is your turn. Make sure to pay attention to the game.” Using observational statements also helps narrate some of these interactional patterns. A parent could say, “Wow, Molly! Sarah hit 2 pins on her first try, and 6 pins on her second try. She did a great job. I’m going to give her a high-five!” Expanding your language beyond “Good job!”, “Great work!”, and “Nice try!” is also helpful. Try to compliment and appreciate a child’s specific behavior and achievements. Some example of this phrasing include:

Andrew, you put your lunch box away by yourself!”

When you put toys away, that helps Ms. Smith. She appreciates your help!”

Carissa, thank you for giving Ella an extra turn. That was showing great sportsman ship!”

Children at this age also like to have a sense of control and independence. It’s important for all parents to establish boundaries, but allowing your child to choose some of the rules and boundaries for play will give them a sense of control and create a less restriction environment. When feeling in control and relaxed, a child will feel more comfortable opening up and exercising their social skills. Giving children some control of their environment and boundaries will also lead to less resistance or less focus on the“rules”, which will allow the child to be more productive during their social play. Language and approach makes all the difference when talking to children. For example, which of the following phrases sounds [approachable?]:

Well, we could play [game X] or we could also play [game Y]. What do you both want to do?”

Well, that is not an option. You can pick [A] or [B]. Which one?”

The words “could”, “also”, and “want” provide a softer approach that appears to be giving all the choice to the child, when in fact you as the parent set the parameters.

Teens 13-18

Working on appropriate social skills with teens during play-dates or outings can be tricky. First off, it is probably best if you refrain from using the word “play-date” with your teen. Instead, use “hanging out”. All teens have an increased self-awareness and are very sensitive to being embarrassed. Working with your teen is all about being natural and playing it cool. No teen is going to want their mom or dad lurching around them while their hanging out with their friends, and especially not if they are going to point out things they are doing wrong. The first key to working with your teen in social situations is to blend in. As much as you despise that video game with exploding zombie heads, act like you love it! Maybe they are playing a game that makes absolutely no sense at all to you: act excited to learn how to play! Every teen has liked something absolutely silly at that age, but if you are not receptive to their interests, they are not going to be receptive to yours (working on the social skills). Try your best at refraining from saying as many “Eww!”s or “What?!”s as possible (if you are really brave, try using some “Cool!”s and “Awesome!”s), and instead ask questions about the game or activity they’re playing. You can ask what the rules are, how to play, what happens if someone does X or does Y, and the object of the game. Remember to ask in an excited voice and not with a concerned tone. This will not only clue you in on the parameters of their play, but also show that you are interested in their world. Once you have established this common ground, you can start modeling appropriate social interactions.

When modeling social skills with your teen, it’s important not to draw attention to him/her or single them/their behavior out. You can still provide correct social responses without having to point out the error.

As an example: Your son/daughter walks in the kitchen, with his friend following behind. Your son/daughter grabs a soda from the fridge, shuts the door, and starts to leave without offering his friend one. Don’t: “Benny, you need to ask your friend if he wants a soda too. That was rude.” DO: “Chris, would you like a soda as well? If Johnny is thirsty, I’m sure you are too!”

The correct response here allows you to demonstrate to your teen that if he is thirsty, others may feel the same as well. It provides an example on how to be polite, without making the child feel like he is being scolded in front of his friend. You can also redirect the focus from your teen by focusing instead on the emotion present. As an example:

You and your teen are at the beach with a friend and his/her teen. Your teen skips up to you, unknowingly knocking over their friends sand creation in the process. DO: “Chris (the friend), you look upset because your castle got knocked over. You were working hard on that, and I can tell you are upset. Maybe we can help you rebuild it!”

In this example, the emotional context is still being addressed, an appropriate action is still being offered, but there is no blame or focus on someone’s mishap. Using “we” when offering to help rebuild the castle also allows for another opportunity to work as a team together, and shifts the focus from a blame (“you need to fix his castle”) to working together on the solution.

Lastly, parents can practice their social skills at home. Practicing with partners or relatives can be very effective modeling. They are many instances when adults use very subtle cues to express what they are feeling, that may be missed by a teen with ASD. Compare these examples:

Example 1:

Mom: “Dan, we are almost out of milk, eggs, and we don’t have anything for lunches this week.” Dad/Dan shrugs his shoulders. Mom: “Well, Dan, I got the groceries last time, and the time before that”. Mom then stares at Dan/Dad with her hands on her hip and a scornful look on her face. Dad/Dan is silent for a moment. Dad/Dan: “I’ll go tonight …” with a huff.

Example 2:

Mom: “Dan, I’m feeling frustrated that I have to get groceries every time, and I think it would be fair if we took turns and shared the responsibility.” Dan/Dad: “I’m sorry that you’re frustrated and I apologize for not helping out more. We should be taking turns and sharing the responsibility. I will go get groceries tonight since you got them the last few times.”

Example 1 uses a lot of emotional cues, body signals, and gestures that may not picked up, where as Example 2 provides a narrative that better describes what each partner is feeling and what the appropriate social rules are. Of course this change in language is hard to do all the time, and that is not expected. But recognizing the more subtle emotional language used, and taking time to expand it to provide more clarification can provide great modeling examples for your teen when at home or with family.

Final Note:

On a final note, if you need more help knowing what to do, reach out to your child’s therapist, or behavioral interventionist. What techniques do they use? What patterns have they seen? What are they currently working on in regards to social skills. You can even ask to shadow a session. Working on the same goals and using the same approach will help create consistency, which helps both your child and the therapist or interventionist working with them!


Vanessa Lemminger M.A., IMF 68894

Marital and Family Therapy Registered Intern
About Vanessa Lemminger:

Vanessa Lemminger is a Behavioral Interventionist at Xcite Steps in San Diego, California. Vanessa Lemminger obtained her Master’s of Arts degree in Marriage and Family Therapy from the University of San Diego in 2011. Her experience with children includes over 2,000 hours of experience working with families and children of all ages (3-17) and all challenges. Included in this is working with individuals with Down syndrome, individuals with various cognitive delays, individuals with physical disabilities due to medical conditions, families of individuals with physical disabilities due to medical conditions, children with developmental disabilities, and children with Autism Spectrum Disorder. Vanessa is also a license-eligible, State of California Board of Behavioral Science Registered Marriage and Family Therapy Intern (IMF #68894).

Please visit Vanessa’s blog to learn more about her and her practice, and to read more of her writing.

Xcite Steps is a special needs service organization in San Diego supporting, enriching and empowering the lives of kids, teens and adults with autism through a variety of social, behavioral and recreational therapies. To find out more please visit


© Vanessa Lemminger, M.A. Marriage and Family Therapist Intern 68894, 2013. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Vanessa Lemminger, Marriage and Family Therapist Intern 68894 with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

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