Cooperative play has been found to be the most difficult stage of play for children. In this stage of play, peers work together to achieve a common goal. Children are learning higher level skills like requesting from peers, contribute ideas, take turns, share with others, and problem solve. All these factors can lead to conflict, however, are needed for the success for other group situations in life. There are four main challenges of cooperative play for children with ASD including players in close proximity, variation, trading/sharing with others, and turn taking. Here are some ideas to overcome these challenges for more successful cooperative play for your child.
Tolerating peers in close proximity – Children are less predictable and may be viewed as aversive for several reasons. Other peers could touch, invade personal space, and change the plan of play. For some children, these actions can be upsetting and lead to challenging behaviors. The first step of intervention is having your child accept others in the play space. You can then work to associate others with positive and reinforcing things to that specific child. It is also beneficial in the beginning, to choose play partners that are most likely to be tolerated and accepted by your child.
Accept variation – As other peers join in play, it is likely that variations with be added and change will occur. If a child plays in repetitive or predictable activities, they could find this aversive. Variation could turn into a negative experience and lead to escalation when others join or approach. If a negative learning history is established then the child could become upset when others come near, even if the peers are not touching toys or engaging in play. Intervention should focus on flexibility and activities for tolerating change.
Trading and sharing with others. To engage in trading and sharing children must request and respond to requests from other peers. Before starting to work on sharing, the child needs to accept other peers in close proximity as well as trading with an adult during play. When the child is ready to start working on sharing start with trading. This allows the child to trade items without losing a preferred item and receiving nothing in return. It is also important to become familiar with typical child development to set appropriate expectations for your child. Children should not and will not share every time they are asked, which will lead to conflict. This conflict is expected and natural.
Waiting and turn taking. Waiting can be difficult for young children, both neurotypical and those with ASD. This can occur because the equipment is not available, like no available swings at the park, or not enough space. If a child engages in challenging behaviors while waiting, there are ways to add more structure to show when an activity will begin. You could create routines by using a timer, specific number or turns, or counting. Another approach is teaching the child to participate in other activities while waiting. While waiting children could clap for the others that are playing or singing.
Interactions with peers and play can be difficult and upsetting for children with ASD. This could make play and peers aversive to those with ASD that have had negative experiences. These are just some ways to overcome four common barriers of cooperative play. It is important for children to tolerate those in close proximity, accept variation, trading and sharing, and waiting with sharing. Cooperative play teaches children skills that will be utilized and essential throughout life.
Resources: Mission Cognition, LLC. Family Training Resource