“It’s MY TURN” – The challenges of turn taking with kids who have ASD

One of the most common non school related questions I hear from parents with children on the spectrum is how to teach turn taking / game playing.  Being able to play games and take turns is an important social skill and, like most other social skills, it is one that needs to be taught. Most neurotypical children need to be taught how to take turns as well, but it’s harder for children with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). Turn taking is a hard skill for kids with ASD to learn because it relies on being able to put yourself in the place of others (empathy), and patience. Neither of these skills is easy or innate for a child with ASD.  Just because it’s hard though, doesn’t mean we shouldn’t teach it. It does mean, however that we should be prepared to teach and re-teach the skill several times, and even then there will be times when reminders are needed.

Start with a social story on turn taking. There are many great sites out there with sample social stories but the best ones are customized to your child. You can take a template and put your child’s name or picture in the story to make it more personal.

Model turn taking . This is key. You need to get the child used to the language surrounding turn taking. If you can, enlist a friend or sibling to help model the behaviour. “It’s my turn to choose a book to read tonight, tomorrow it will be your turn”. The more this language is used in everyday life, the more likely the child is to internalize the behaviour. We take turns in life a lot more than we tend to realize, by verbalizing it, it helps draw attention to the behaviour.

Turn taking is an essential part of conversation. At its most basic, a conversation is two people taking turns talking and listening to each other. Many children with ASD need help mastering this communication skill. Programs like More than Words or other speech therapy interventions stress the importance of modelling turn taking as part of normal conversation.  Even using a question and answer method is a great way to model turn taking – on *my* turn I ask a question while on *your* turn you answer it.

Practice, practice practice! Like any skill, turn taking takes some time to master.  Try to find fun ways to practice taking turns, and don’t be too worried if the concept isn’t mastered right away. I like to use fidget toys to occupy little hands while they are waiting for their turn. Many children with ASD listen better if there is something occupying their hands. You can practice taking turns in conversation pretty much everywhere and it’s easy to point out turn taking on most children’s shows.

One of my favourite activities is playing board games and it just so happens that playing rule based games (aka most of the games out there) are a great vehicle for teaching children how to take turns.  Children with ASD thrive on rules and predictability. Board games are predictable – the expectations are clearly set out at the beginning of the game.  (As a note, one of the important strategies for success in board games is to reiterate the expectations and the rules EVERY TIME you play.)

Many beginner games are actually very ill suited for children with sensory issues.  They’re loud and flashy and easily overwhelm.  Most do not have volume switches (these were clearly not designed by people who have spent time with children – the noise may be cute the 1st or 2nd time but by the 30th?  Not so much). Others require a surprisingly high amount of fine motor skill (I’m looking at you Hi-Ho Cherry-O) so aren’t good for kids who have fine motor issues.  Even Memory can be tricky (it’s hard to pick tiles up off the table when you have fine motor issues). Avoid games of vengeance like Sorry as they can make kids feel picked on. I even avoid snakes and ladders for the first few attempts at game play because even though it’s pure luck if you hit the snake, a child who constantly finds himself on a snake is bound to get upset.  If fine motor skills are an issue,  you can buy larger pawns and playing pieces at many game stores or use household items such as spools of thread – i find these Ball Pawns which are easy to grip. I recommend a large spongy die / dice for both safety (they hurt less if thrown – trust me) and because they’re easy to manipulate. My favourite Soft Dice came from Amazon as a 12 pack.

Start with 2 player games so that the child gets their turn more often. The opponent should be an older sibling or adult who can gently remind the child when it is or isn’t their turn.  Again, use the language of “my turn, your turn” to help the child know when it’s time to play. Keep working on turn taking and it will pay off. It’s a skill that has many different applications.  Next week I’ll post some of my favourite games for kids on the spectrum.

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