Special needs parents are no strangers to the term “social skills,” and many of them have seen their toddlers and preschoolers struggle with social interaction. Special children often have trouble initiating play with their peers or even their parents; your child might show you very little eye contact or seem more interested in playing alone than with you. Early intervention at home is the best way parents can help their special children improve their social skills.
Special children struggle with understanding or handling emotions. Deciphering facial expressions can be challenging for special needs children, and using games with flash cards, for example, helps them begin to recognize what expressions mean. You can even have your child imitate these expressions -- say, “Show me an angry face,” and help your kid with the expression. You might need to model the faces first. Shuffle your expression cards face down and choose one; mimic the expression and see if your child can tell you what emotion you’re showing. Let your preschooler be imaginative and create a reason why the person in the picture looks the way she does. For example, if the face shows the feeling of sickness, your child might say, “She’s sick because she ate too many cookies.” Use every opportunity to give your child eye contact and encourage your child to do the same; “peekaboo” is a classic activity that toddlers love.
Storytelling and social stories are concrete ways for your child to put emotions into context. Use the same emotion flashcards as before, and ask your child to create a story based on the emotion on the card. You and your child can take turns adding details to the story. Try role playing games that involve a concrete question; for example, ask, “What’s the thing to say when you’re playing a game and mom says it’s time for dinner?” These kinds of games can be played during bath time or even at the dinner table. Social stories use combinations of pictures and a simple story to help teach your special needs child about how to interact in certain situations. A basic story might show kids on the playground and ask, “What are the rules?” Have your child tell you the rules of playing on the playground.
An article by Barbara Lowenthal, published in the journal "Childhood Education," discussed the importance of free play activities for special children. This unstructured activity encourages social interaction by providing endless opportunities; each free play time is different. It helps if you give your child a few rules or even give some suggestions for play. Dramatic play toys, such as dress up clothes and masks, promote more social interaction and utilize your child’s imagination.
One way to really force interaction and improve it is to play board games. These games teach your child how to take turns and follow rules, all while interacting with other players. Playing games with your little one also boosts his self-esteem and lets you focus on an amusing activity together. Children’s board game favorites include “Chutes and Ladders,” “Candy Land,” “Sorry!,” “Guess Who” and “Sequence.” Many games also have a “junior” variety, which is more age-appropriate for your toddler or preschooler.