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Building Back-and-Forth Interactions

What are back-and-forth interactions?

  • Initially, young children may cognitively learn this skill through structured activities where adults instruct them “your turn” “now my turn”

  • Ideally, we want the child to develop and use natural turn-taking. For example: When a mum pulls a funny face, the child watches and giggles then pulls a funny face, to which the mother watches and giggles (and so on)

  • When talking to someone you take turns listening and speaking.

Why are back-and-forth interactions important?

  • Being able to engage in give-and-take exchanges with another person is a key skill of social development and communication

  • Back-and-forth interactions are needed during play, greetings, conversations, and nearly all aspects of social interaction. It is a skill developed in childhood and used throughout life.

  • Such interactions establish balance within an interaction, i.e. no one is in complete control and no one is always just following

  • One leads while the other follows, then the follower leads which the other follows. This is called shared control.

  • This benefits the child by enhancing two areas of skills: - Initiative and spontaneity, when they need to lead the play/interaction - Paying attention to the other and their input, when they need to listen/watch

Why can back-and-forth interactions be tricky for individuals with ASD?

  • Children with ASD are often less aware of the other person’s subtle ways of communicating; use of eyes, facial expression, and tone of voice. They may notice these but not understand, interpret, or respond to them effectively

  • From a very young age, the child may not have been tuned in to the parent’s communications, thus the child didn’t ‘take a turn’ and exchanges were not developed. As this continued over time, parents may have noticed the child preferring to play on their own – contributed to by their difficulty paying attention to others and responding.

How Parents and Teachers Can Increase a Child’s Back-and-Forth Interactions

The focus here is on teaching the child to expect your responses, imitate you in play, use gestures and words (dependant on any additional speech delay), and experience social interactions as fun and rewarding.

There are four key steps:

  1. The child chooses a toy and begins to do something with it

  2. The adult joins the play by imitating, working together, or taking turns

  3. Take turns and vary the play slightly each time (encourages flexibility and maintains interest)

  4. When the child begins to lose interest, transition to a new activity. If they disengage first, that’s ok, go and join in with what they are doing.

A Psychologist or other therapist can help families to further understand how to play with children in this way, as helpful to increasing joint play. Demonstrations can be helpful as well as problem-solving to tailor your approach to your child.