How to Teach Turn-Taking to a Child With Autism

Taking turns is a complex social skill. It involves patience, impulse control, and appropriate social interaction. Yet for children on the autism spectrum, these are precisely the skills in which they often struggle. Taking turns is an important developmental milestone that most children naturally develop, but children with autism may need a more direct approach in achieving success in this area.

Why is Taking Turns So Important

Taking turns is important for many reasons.

  • Conversation – Taking turns is an essential element in conversation. If a child doesn’t have the skills to know when to stop talking to allow another person to speak, that can impact their ability to have meaningful back and forth dialogue. Even children who communicate nonverbally through sign language, picture cards, or a communication device also need to turn-taking built into their communication to teach conversation skills.
  • Education – In a classroom setting, turn-taking is essential. Children take turns answering questions, waiting for help, playing a game with peers, using playground equipment, and more. If children lag in the ability to take turns, they can struggle in school, impacting their education and appropriate social interactions with peers.
  • Relationships – When children struggle to take-turns appropriately with peers and family members that can have a negative impact on those relationships. Teaching turn-taking skills to children with autism can help them to develop healthy relationships across all settings.

Taking Turn Strategies

There are multiple ways to help a child on the spectrum learn to take turns. The following are easy-to-implement strategies that can be used in a home, school, or clinical setting.

  • Use Visual Cues– Many children on the spectrum respond well to visual cues. It can be as simple as a hand gesture to signal whose turn it is, or a laminated green circle passed during conversation.
  • Use Turn-Taking Language – Be sure to use the language, “My turn” and “Your turn” when working on building turn-taking skills.
  • Model Turn-Taking– Let your child see you taking turns with your spouse or other children and use verbal cues to highlight when it happens.
  • Use a Timer – In addition to being an auditory and visual cue, timers ensure all have equal time.

Taking Turns Activities

  • Playing With Toys – Pick two of your child’s highly preferred toys, one for each of you. Then use the timer to take turns playing with them before switching. Set the timer and start over!
  • Playing Simple Board/Card Games – Board games have turn-taking skills built in! Start with very simple games such as Zingo or Connect Four. Then move to games that are a little less predictable, such as Uno or Chutes and Ladders.
  • Telling Knock-Knock Jokes – Knock-Knock Jokes are structured conversations with specific verbal routines for each participant. Teach and tell your child knock-knock jokes as a way to help build turn-taking skills into conversations.
  • Coloring a Picture Together– Print off two of the same picture and gather a few crayons needed to complete it. For example, a picture of an apple that would need red and green crayons. Only provide one of each color crayon, building in the need to share and take turns.

Learning to take turns is a skill that most children develop organically. But for children with exceptional needs, such as Autism Spectrum Disorder, parents may need to take a direct instruction approach in helping their children develop this skill. However, with patience and time, they can learn!

Every child needs a champion; an adult who will never give up on them! – Rita F. Pierson

Published by

Amy Nielsen

Amy Nielsen is a former children's librarian of nearly twenty years. She now spends most of her time obsessively pounding on a keyboard. She is the author of It Takes a Village: How to Build a Support System for Your Exceptional Needs Family, Goldilocks and the Three Bears: Understanding Autism Spectrum Disorder. Her upcoming YA Worth it debuts in May of 2024. She is also a freelance writer for The Autism Helper. When she's not writing, she and her family are most likely crusing the waters of Tampa Bay.