Facilitating Friendships with Children on the Autism Spectrum in Inclusive Preschool Classrooms

The following information was adapted from a presentation by Kori Bardige during the 2008 Council for Exceptional Children conference in Boston, MA. The resource can assist early childhood educators and families in making connections, teaching new classroom skills, strengthening communication, and creating additional ideas to help young children with disabilities build friendships.


Facilitating Friendships with Children on the Autism Spectrum in Inclusive Preschool Classrooms

Conversation Starters

Conversation Starters: Prompt children to initiate communication/conversation with peers by teaching them a few common phrases or scripts that interest peers. For example, if peers are interested in a particular TV show, teach the child with ASD to comment on things about the show.Teachers can also plan conversations such as, "Let's talk about what we did during centers" and prompt the child to talk about what they played with peers. Teachers may also prompt a child to invite a friend to his/her house to play a certain game or activity (this should be pre-arranged with both sets of parents).

Pretend Play Activities Designed to Teach Skills and Facilitate Interactions

Teaching Play Scripts: Peers often enjoy playing familiar games repeatedly and adding to, or modifying, their play scripts. Help children with ASD to learn a few of these scripts by practicing pretend play or reading social stories that model the child's role. It may be helpful to script ways for the child to enter or initiate the play. Having the teacher take on a role and facilitate these scripts can also help children with ASD join in the fun. Remember: start simple!

Suggestions of Play Scripts to Teach: Taking care of a baby/family roles; pizza or ice cream parlor/cooking; building a rocket ship and go to outer space; taking a trip; familiar routines from the child's experiences such as going to a fast food restaurant; or any script connected to the curriculum theme.

Suggested Materials: Labels that prompt scripts, such as pictures of volcanoes and dinosaur figurines, real life housekeeping materials, boxes from foods children eat, souvenirs from trips or activities.

Meal Time Activities Designed to Teach Skills and Facilitate Interactions

Snack Guy

"Snack Guy" – Giving each child a role helps peers see children as active participants in the classroom. Snack Guy was created by Stacey Puff and was one of her classroom helper jobs. During snack, the child would walk to each peer carrying a tray and wearing a special "Snack Guy" hat. On the front of the tray were pictures of the snack that day and inside were tomato baskets filled with snacks (primarily crackers, raisins or other easy to carry foods). The "Snack Guy" would ask each child what he/she wanted to eat and would pass the requested food to that child. If the child couldn't respond verbally, he/she could point to the pictures. All children had a turn to be the "Snack Guy" and practice requesting and initiating conversation. This was also a perfect opportunity to teach manners.

Cautions: If children are on special diets, "Snack Guy" may need to be modified. For example, the child could pass out art materials or other items where this type of interaction could still take place.

Playground Activities Designed to Teach Skills and Facilitate Interactions

The playground is the perfect place to facilitate friendships because the majority of the play is active, has simple/explicit rules and requires minimal language.

Teacher's Role: Teachers need to take an active role on the playground by getting involved in children's games and initiating new games. When teachers take on a role, it is easier for them to bring other children into the games by offering them roles (i.e., "Alex, it's your turn to chase me.") and pointing out skills to peers (e.g., "Look at Mary. She's making a sand castle. I wonder if she needs some help?").

Potential Challenges and Solutions: Some children with ASD experience sensory challenges which make it difficult for them to be comfortable on the playground. Children may have trouble wearing certain clothes like jackets, or may dislike certain textures such as sand or wood chips. Some children may use playground time as an opportunity for self-stimulation, such as only wanting to be on the swing. Teachers can assist children in overcoming these challenges by bringing familiar classroom materials outdoors. Bring blocks for children to build with in the sand, dress up clothes from the housekeeping area, easels for painting, figurines or vehicles that can be added to a sand castle. Having outdoor visual task boards can also help children know what they are expected to do (e.g., first build a sand castle, then go down the slide 3 times, then go on the swing). End with a preferred activity so the child will want to repeat the play.

Suggested Activities: Play games of chase (variations include monsters, cops and robbers, princess and dragon), create an obstacle course for children to follow (children can work with buddies), pretend cooking or store (ice cream parlor is often popular), bring parachutes and beanbags outside, play simple games such as "Duck, Duck, Goose" and "Red Light, Green Light," or bring buckets of water and paint brushes and let children "paint" the building/fence.

Small Group Activities Designed to Teach Skills and Facilitate Interactions

Teacher's Role: Small group activities are great ways to observe which children work well together and to pair children up according to their strengths. The teacher should act as a facilitator and then fade back as children are able to continue the interaction on their own. The teacher should choose activities which are geared towards skills such as turn-taking, cooperation and using academic knowledge. Children with ASD are often very good at learning rote skills, i.e., colors, shapes, letters, numbers, patterns, puzzles, predictable (rule-driven) games, even sight words. Teachers can capitalize on small groups as a time for having children with ASD help their peers learn these skills. This is important so that peers see the child with ASD as a competent play partner and not only as someone who needs assistance.

Suggested Activities: Table games; patterning cards; matching activities; floor puzzles or multi-piece puzzles; ball mazes; large building blocks where children work together to create a structure; double easel painting where children can create a picture together; and [Play-Doh™] where children can exchange cookie cutters or work together to make a HUGE pizza.

Some Recommended Books Related to This Topic

  • Peer Play and the Autism Spectrum: The Art of Guiding Children's Socialization and Imagination by Pamela J. Wolfberg
  • Playing, Laughing and Learning with Children on the Autism Spectrum: A Practical Resource of Play Ideas for Parents and Care Takers by Julia Moore
  • Reaching Out, Joining in: Teaching Social Skills to Young Children With Autism (Topics in Autism) by Mary Jane Weiss and Sandra L. Harris
  • Giggle Time - Establishing the Social Connection: A Program to Develop the Communication Skills of Children with Autism by Susan Aud Sonders
  • Engaging Autism by Stanley Greenspan
  • Do-Watch-Listen-Say by Kathleen A. Quill
  • My Friend with Autism: A Coloring Book for Peers and Siblings by Beverly Bishop and Craig Bishop

Facilitating Friendships with Children on the Autism Spectrum in Inclusive Preschool Classrooms. Bardige, M. Kori. Abilities Network. 2008. English.

Last Reviewed: November 2009

Last Updated: November 18, 2015