The Play Groups Catch 22: A family would like their child with autism to have to attend a Play Groups program. They feel their child would benefit from the opportunity to play and make friends under the guidance of highly trained professionals. Families may also feel their child does not have the supports necessary to play and make friends in other environments. However, an essential part of the Play Groups program is that the child with autism attends with a peer from their natural peer group (expert player). Ah, the Play Groups Catch 22!
The Play Groups programs are unique and somewhat tricky to set up. The philosophy is that the intervention focuses on guiding the play and learning of both the child with autism and their peers. Therefore, the focus is on ensuring all the children are a good match in age, ability, and interests. However, once the programs start, the emphasis shifts to building relationships with and between the children. Building relationships can take some time. However, it is key to the success of the program. Building strong relationships enables us to support the development of group identity and of friendships.
During the Play Groups program, peers (expert players) learn on ‘how to’ play and make friends with the child with autism. If the peer is from the child’s natural peer group, then these new skills will transfer to another environment. Therefore, peers from the child with autism natural peer group are critical to the child’s success in the Play Groups program but more importantly, critical to the child’s success in other environments such as school.
Peers (expert players) who attend Play Groups from the natural peer group provide the following supports:
• Friendship. Having even one ‘friend’ at school can lower anxiety and increase engagement
• Group identity, because we all need to feel like we belong
• Modeling for other peers and adults, ‘how to’ successful play and interact with your child
• Rapid generalization of skills learned at Play Groups to other environments
• Opportunity to create lifelong friendships
Whether your child with autism attends Play Groups programs or not, below are some tips you can use to find the right peers to play with your child with autism and to avoid the Play Groups Catch 22:
Classmates – Usually, there are a few children in your child’s class that would make great expert players. Look for children who show interest in your child. Ask your child’s teacher if they might know which peer is a “mother hen,” a “class clown” or a “middle child.” All these personality types make good expert players. The Society can provide families with expert player invitation letters to circulate in your child’s class or other community settings. Offer to bring the peers with your child with autism. By doing so, you are encouraging registration as families are not required to do the drop-off or picks, and provides the players alone time during the trip to and from Play Groups each week.
Siblings and Cousins – Some siblings and cousins make great expert players, and some do not. Usually, we recommend siblings, and sometimes cousins join the Play Groups program, but in another group from their sibling/cousin with autism. This way they benefit from participating and learning at Play Groups without the stressors that may come with a pre-existing relationship.
Ask Your Friends. Your friends likely have children or nieces or nephews that would make great expert players. Request that they register their child in your child’s Play Groups program or another group.
Ask Your Family. Your family members may have friends whom they could ask. Requesting support from your family is a great way to involve them in learning about the Play Groups programs and your child’s development. They are also welcome to take the free online parent training at any time.
Ask Professionals. If you have other professionals working with your child, ask them if they have children or other clients who may be interested in registering their expert players. Asking for community supports is a great well to bring our community together.
Put up a Poster. Ask your child’s teacher, school, or community setting to post the expert player poster (provided here) This small act not only supports your child and family but also helps other families who may be struggling to find expert players
Expert players attend all our programs completely free of charge (register click here). Research suggests that expert players gain advanced skills while attending Play Groups programs. More importantly, they enjoy participating in the Play Groups programs and ask to come back again and again.