Developing communication and social skills through Role-Play
Created by Deepti Deshpande Updated on Jun 06, 2020
As an autism mother, my constant endeavor has been to develop age appropriate skills in my son. As he grew from a toddler into a 7 year old, one of the constant struggles that I encountered, was that he had no friends. It occurred to me that it was not about his willingness, but his inability that impeded his integration in a social group.
Soham was happy being around people, but yet lonely. As I pondered over this aspect in depth, I realized that my son could not 'fit in' with his peers as he was unable to hold a conversation with them on topics that he indulged in or could not express himself adequately during play. His listening skills are also needed to be worked on. As a result, it was natural for the other children to lose interest or deal with him impatiently.
Consequently, I started to engage him in conversations where I pretended to be one of the kids who Soham wanted to play with. On one occasion the activity I chose was for him to listen carefully to instructions regarding the rules of a game. However Soham did not register everything that I told him and was unable to relay back the information. I expressed my displeasure with a wry face and walked away.
Discreetly I had the entire conversation recorded, post which we both watched the video together. Watching himself from a third person's view brought a lot of clarity about what had gone wrong. He was able to give me the following observations:
That he was distracted by some movie character he had remembered.
That he had not been completely attentive and as a result missed out on understanding what was being relayed.
That I was upset and would not want to play with him
Upon prompting him how he could have had done this better, his response was
He should have had been more attentive
He should have asked questions when he was unable to follow what I was saying.
This activity set a precedent of doing role plays involving different social situations, recording them and analyzing the same to find better ways of responding to them. We worked on a host of scenarios like
Talking to friends about topics (that they are generally indulged in) like cricket, other sports, videos, movies, superheroes and other characters.
How to respond when there is a conflict of interest between him and his peer
Placing order for food at a restaurant
How do deal with a stranger who tries to be over friendly
How to listen, understand and then respond when the other is speaking and many such
Role-playing became an integral tool as it had multiple advantages
1. Strengthening communication and language - In the excitement of sharing his thoughts, Soham was initially not allowing the other person to speak.
However, role-playing helped. He started listening and gradually learnt to listen completely. That further helped him in understanding the message and respond to it in relevant terms.
For instance, in one of the scenarios, Soham was meeting his classmate after a long break and was looking forward to telling him about his vacation. The role play helped him understand that his friend would be equally excited and would want to share his experience as well. So he needed to wait his turn, listen to his classmate, understand, respond appropriately in terms of comments or questions and then share his own experience.
2. Recognizing response to nuances - He started responding more appropriately to body language, tone, expression and social nuances. For instance if I frowned, he would take a moment to pause, reflect and then respond.
3. Awareness towards different types of social situations - Right from being able to give directions and making purchases to making new friends and speaking to guests when they visit home, there has been a lot of situations that have helped him in understanding the different aspects of social interactions .
4. Providing a safe space to make errors - Role playing allowed Soham the confidence to make errors without the fear of being judged as well as introspect and make the required changes in his approach.
Few tips for effective role playing
1. Setting context - Talk to your child before hand and explain the theme of the role play. You can also explain in simple terms how it would help him
2. Recording - If you intend to record the role play, either do it without the child's knowledge, or check with him first, explaining the purpose, otherwise it can be a source of distraction.
3. Place - Choose a place which is free of other distractions or stimuli to maintain focus.
4. Making it fun - One can add an element of fun by using props or a few toys. For instance, for buying fruits and vegetables, one can have toy fruits and veggies to liven up the act. Over a period of time you can also involve a couple of more family members as a part of the role play to strengthen these skills further. As an example, one of them can become a vendor / visitor / classmate etc.
5. Discuss and learn - After the role play, discuss and appreciate what really went well and then move to things that can be done differently and the ways to do them. It is good to ask the child about his experience and then add to it. It also makes the child feel important and thus more involved in the process.
This exercise of doing role plays continues to be done in my house on a sustained basis even today, as I try to include age appropriate scenarios from different dimensions of life. It has helped my son tremendously in communicating with his peers and being integrated in social situations. Even though Soham interacts and plays with just one or two children at a time, it is meaningful and gives him a great degree of happiness as well as confidence to interact socially.