It is no surprise that children with developmental social disorders often struggle with initiating and maintaining social interactions and appear to have little motivation to engage with their peers. But, as we all know, many excel at puzzles, video games, and computers.
There are many successful methods rooted in Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) that are used to facilitate social skills. Today I am focusing on the principles of Pivotal Response Treatment (PRT). PRT incorporates many elements but it is unique in that it focuses on motivation, child led initiatives, and natural reinforcers.
This is where SPHERO comes in. Sphero is a robotic ball that connects wirelessly to a smartphone or a tablet. Users can interact with Sphero by using one of the 30+ applications and games. Sphero can precisely move in any direction commanded by the user.
In my experience with this little robot, children love it, ask for it, and are motivated to initiate and engage in various social activities and tasks. I use this little robot to facilitate structured social activities that focus on development of particular skills and to facilitate natural engagement and informal interactions through play in order to generalize skills. The thing about Sphero is that it combines the concept of technology and video games with a tangible object and can naturally promote a wide range of social activities.
Let me share a success story. I was recently working with a new group of children who show behaviors consistent with Autism Spectrum Disorder. One of the kiddos had been receiving social skills support for years, knew the basic social skills, but had difficulty generalizing these skills. His mother told me that he had not made progress for years. When I met him, he seemed very sweet, but appeared withdrawn, was incredibly soft spoken, and did not initiate with peers. I noticed that he showed interest in the activities when I took out Sphero. By focusing on his motivation for Sphero I have been able to facilitate many adaptive social skills and to see the most amazing progress. I gave him an opportunity to play with Sphero during his free time, but the only catch, he had to invite a peer to play. With some priming regarding ways to initiate, he was able to invite 2 peers to play. During the play I saw this shy and soft spoken young man take on an amazing leadership role. He explained to the peers how Sphero works, asked questions, got feedback on ways to set up a Sphero obstacle course, and reminded his new friends to take turns. By focusing on what motivates him (Sphero), I was able to see positive social behaviors and communication in a natural setting in a very short period of time.
I have been asked so many times to share what I do. Attached is a list of successful social activities I have done with children ages 10-14. These children all show behaviors consistent with moderate to high functioning Autism Spectrum Disorder and/or have difficulties focusing, attending, and with hyperactivity. I believe that these activities can be easily scaffolded for children who are younger and/or lower functioning to promote socialization and basic social skills. Note: The activities below are based on qualitative information rooted in the principles of my profession and clinical judgement. These activities have been tried in the field and I have seen positive results. However, these activities have yet to be replicated in a formal research setting.
In the comments section below, share your ideas. Share things you have done to facilitate social skills through connected play.
Zhanna Shekhtmeyster is a Licensed Educational Psychologist, School Psychologist, and Nationally Certified School Psychologist