5 Reasons Social Games Are Super Important

Activities, Autism, Communication, Special Needs Parenting

Using social games is one of the best ways to help your toddler or preschooler with autism pay attention to you.  Social games include songs, nursery rhymes, games like chase and tickle, and other simple social routines.


Last week we talked about how critical paying attention to people is for learning!  Using social games is a great way to do this!  We can teach our kids how to look at us, participate, listen, follow directions, and communicate with us.


Social interactions can be very difficult for our youngest kids with autism.  A lot of times they don’t seem very interested in playing with us and ignore our efforts to join in whatever they are doing.


So, how do we get them to want to interact with us?  How do we teach our child that it’s fun to be with us?


Social games!


Why Social Games are So Important


Almost every parent I have worked with in early intervention tells me, “I just want her to talk.”


Of course you do!  Every parent wants to hear those first words!


However, our kids often tend to isolate themselves.  They’ll wander around, maybe play with a couple of toys, and watch shows.  But when we try to play with them or join in what they’re doing, they ignore us or get upset.


Difficulties with social interactions is one of the core features of autism and impacts a child’s learning effective communication skills.


Communication involves two people!  I tell my parents, “If we can get your child to be more social, we can get them to communicate.”


Your Child Needs You


Social games are so effective at increasing interactions because your child needs you!


You are the toy!  You do the fun thing they like!


Many autistic kids tend to pay more attention to objects and screens than people.


However, if we can eliminate those, we can increase our child’s attention to us!


Social Games and Sensory Input

Games like chase, tickle, swinging, jumping, and squeezes all provide a lot of sensory input.


I can’t tell you how many times I have struggled to get one of my two year-olds to look at me!


Then I get them in a swing or give them some pressure by squeezing their arms or legs and BAM!!


Eye contact for days!!


That movement and pressure is something lots of our kids love!  Using these types of activities allows our child to get the sensory input they want and helps social interactions become less difficult.


Provides Predictability

Communication and social interactions can be really challenging and unpredictable!


Using a social game provides structure and a routine!


When we keep the game or routine the same, it allows our toddler or preschooler to know what it going to happen.   When they know what is going to happen (and you’re doing something they love), you see them stick with that game longer!


Lots of repetition can seem boring to adults and we want to change things up!


However, this structure and predictability you’re providing is just want your child needs to feel comfortable in social interactions and stay in those interactions for longer amounts of time.


Everyone Has a Part In Social Games

Games, like communication, only work when everyone is doing their part!


In social games, you have a role and so does your child.  Initially, that could mean they just watch you play peek-a-boo or sing “Wheels on the Bus.”


As they become more familiar with these games and routines, we see them start to participate more.  They might try to put the blanket back on your head or start to do some of the actions for “Wheels on the Bus.”


Once we have participation, we have communication opportunities!!


Connect With Your Child

I don’t have an autistic child of my own, however, I have seen the sadness and discouragement on the faces of the parents I work with.  They try so hard to get their child to notice them, just to be ignored over and over.


Once we find those couple of games or routines that your child loves, we can get some interest, participation, and communication!


Social games are a fabulous way to connect with your child when other interactions are really hard for them!


How to Choose Which Social Games to Use


  • Watch what your child naturally goes to.  Does he always want to play with water?  Does she want to swing for hours?  By watching your child, you can usually get at least 2-3 ideas.
  • Think of their sensory preferences.  Does your son love to spin?  Does your daughter love tight squeezes?  Do they love music?  Running and jumping?
  • “Happy little accidents.”  Anyone else watch Bob Ross when they were a kid?  If something didn’t go to plan with his painting, he’d call it a happy little accident.  I can’t tell you how many times I’ve come across a game or routine by accident.  I’ll put something on my head and let it fall off and all of the sudden, I have a game the kiddo loves!  If you come across a “happy little accident,” write it down so you’ll remember that game!


Goals for Social Games


When you find 2-3 games or songs or play routines your child enjoys, you’re ready to start!


Remember, the goals for these games and routines are to increase the amount of time your child will stay in an interaction and have them participate.


Focus on:


  • Eye contact and attention to you:  When you have a social game or routine your child loves, this really increases the likelihood they will look at you and pay attention to you.
    • Motor games are especially great for this!
    • Swinging, lifting your child up in the air, tickles, squeezes, etc.
  • How your child communicates during interactions:  Look at how your child lets you know he enjoys the activity and wants it to continue.
    • Smiles, vocalizations, body movements.
    • For example, I work with a little boy who loves to jump.  He likes to jump facing away from me.  I’ll lift him up three times and then stop.  He then backs up to me for me to continue the game.
    • I also work with a little boy who loves squeezes on his legs.  He watches me the whole time during this game!  When I stop he’ll lift up his legs and make a sound.  That’s how he communicates during the game.
  • Predictable, simple language:  You’re going to put 1-2 word phrases with what you are doing and use those same words each time you repeat the game.
    • Using the same words over and over helps your child pair the words with what is happening.  They get a lot of repetition which is necessary for language!
    • Jumping example:  Each time I lift up the boy I count “1, 2, 3, stop!”  When he backs up, I say, “More jumping.”
    • Squeezing example:  I start at the top of his leg and move down to his feet.  I say, “Squeeze, squeeze, squeeze, TOES!”
  • Animation and excitement
    • Your child is much more likely to stick with the activity or game if you are excited and animated and make it fun!
    • If this is not your natural way, this will be harder but it really does help a lot!




  • Questions
    • What do you want?  Do you want more jumping?  Do you want me to do that again?  Can you tell me what you want?  Where’s the dog?  Where’s your nose?
      • The goal is engagement!  Questions are demands – you’re wanting an answer.  Initially you want to avoid these.
      • Watch for HOW your child communicates during the activity and then put a word to that action or sound.
  • Longer phrases
    • Keep your phrases really short so your child learns the important words during your game.
    • Up, down, ready set go, 1,2,3, more, jump, eat, tickle, go, bubbles, pop, etc.
  • Distractions
    • You want to me the best thing in the room!
    • If your child is easily distracted by screens, siblings, toys, etc., find a place that’s quieter and where there are fewer things for you to compete against.


Amount of Time


Interacting with people is difficult for a lot of our kids!


So, we definitely want to find games and activities that they love and need us for!  That’s the first step.


Once you’ve found those, the next question is, “How often do I have to do this?”


The teacher in me says, “As many times as you can during the day!”  We need our kids to be responding and interacting with us as much as we can during the day.


However, the parent in me says, “Start small.  Go for 10 minutes, 2-3 times per day.”


If you can get to a place where you have 30 minutes of really good interactions with your child per day, that’s amazing!


Attach Social Games to Routines


I love working in early intervention because I am in families’ homes!  I take whatever goal the family wants to work on and we figure out how to incorporate it into their day.


That’s your goal too!  You’re really busy!  There’s a lot to do in a day!


Attaching your social games into routines that you’re already doing is a great strategy!  Also, it makes it functional for your child!


  • Bath time
  • Meals and snacks
  • Dressing
  • Play time
  • Outside
  • Book reading


All of these are things that you’re probably already doing.  Plan on how you can incorporate your social games into one of those routines.


Social Games Examples


Some of the things you do with your child every day are social games.  You just might not think of them that way!


Here are some examples:

  • Songs and nursery rhymes:
    • Wheels on the Bus
    • Head, Shoulders, Knees, and Toes
    • Itsty Bitsy Spider
    • If You’re Happy and You Know It
  • Games and routines
    • Ready, Set, Go
    • 1, 2, 3, Go
    • Tickle
    • Rocket
    • Peek-a-boo
    • Jumping
    • Swinging
    • Squeezes
    • Bubbles


Social Games Wrap Up


Social games are an incredibly powerful tool to use with our kids!  They increase attention to people.  They’re great for participation.  We can add in simple language.


Remember, your first goal is to find 2-3 things your child really loves!


Next, plan on when you will do these games.


Then, you’re looking for attention and participation!  Does your daughter make a sound to continue the game?  Move towards you?  Look at you?  Is your son holding up his finger to start your counting again?


That’s all participation!!


Don’t push copying sounds and words right now!  That will come!


Social games should be easy, but fun and engaging too!


Do you have a social game or routine that’s worked well for you?  Tell me about it!!



Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Pin It on Pinterest

Share This