As the pandemic drags on and children are kept home from school and away from friends, they are missing out on vital chances to build and practice social skills. Even skills we might not think of as academic, such as conversation and back-and-forth play skills, can take a hit, according to psychologist Amy Wilson, clinical director of Autism Learning Partners in Laguna Hills. That’s because these are best practiced with a variety of people in a variety of situations, which isn’t possible at home. “It’s important for children to learn that not everyone responds the same way, and they must adjust their behavior in different ways based on individual reactions,” she says. Yes, kids might be interacting with others on video these days, but it can also be difficult to catch more subtle social cues on a screen.
It might be tempting to set up a virtual meetup for children who are missing their friends, but child psychologist Stephanie Mihalas, who directs The Center for Well Being in West L.A., is in favor of in-person get togethers when it becomes safely possible. “Kids are not really keen on having more Zoom play dates,” she says. Instead, find an outdoor setting where you can maintain a distance of 6-12 feet and let the kids enjoy an activity they used to do together. “A lot of children are having a hard time internalizing that things can go back to the way they were,” she says. “Seeing their friend physically in person helps.” Get two sets of Legos to build with, two sets of cookies to decorate, or let them bring their own laptops to play Minecraft. “At least there’s this kind of shared connection in what they enjoyed,” says Mihalas.
Behaviorist Mary Webb, vice president of clinical services at Autism Learning Partners, points out that it takes effort to help children, especially those with developmental differences, understand the need to wear a mask and maintain social distancing. This can make in-person meetings and community outings more difficult. “Some of the kids that we work with might have been left out of that if they weren’t tolerating wearing a mask or didn’t understand appropriate social distancing,” she says. “As we build those skills, then the child will have access to more community outings and opportunities.” She recommends that parents gradually increase the amount of time they ask their child to wear a mask. Trying different fabrics might help children with sensory sensitivity. Face shields could also be an alternative.
If in-person activities aren’t an option, another alternative is texting. Mihalas says it can be more relaxing for kids than Zoom, and has the benefit of letting them learn a new set of communication skills related to language and emojis. Parents need to carefully monitor what is going on during the texting, but it can be a great benefit to kids. “For them, there is actually a huge world that can open up,” she says.
Christina Elston is Editor of L.A. Parent.