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Learning Social Skills for Children With Autism

Many children with autism need support that is specific to learning about social behaviors and how to interact in a variety of social situations. Children with autism may often feel overwhelmed by or are unsure of the first steps to take to make a desired interaction happen.

Developing social skills will help to build and strengthen important relationships with family, peers, friends, and community members. There are many ways to help children with autism understand social interactions and engage with others to have new experiences and ultimately, increase social acceptance and happiness. Teaching social skills can also reduce problem behavior and improve academic performance as well as mental health.

Social Skills, Explained

Social skills are the skills people use to communicate and interact with each other, both verbal and non-verbal, including gestures and body language. It also encompasses the customs and cues that help us to navigate these interactions. For children with autism, identifying these cues is often challenging and not innately learned. Thus, focused training and practice using these non-verbal communications can help people with autism learn how to more accurately discern the intent of a communicated message.

Which Social Skills are Taught?

Social skills that can be taught to children can include:

  • Play Skills

    • Taking turns in games
    • Sharing toys
    • Gestures
    • Social interactions
    • Waiting for others
  • Conversation Skills

    • Choosing what to talk about
    • What body language to use
    • Initiating conversations
    • Greetings
  • Emotional Skills

    • Managing emotions
    • Understanding how others feel
    • Understanding facial expressions
    • Empathy
  • Problem-Solving Skills

    • Dealing with conflict 
    • Making decisions in social situations.
    • Expressing opinions

Who Teaches Social Skills?

Given the enormous range of social skills that can be learned, there are also several types of professionals who specialize in teaching these skills in various settings. These settings cover school, home, and the community. The array of professionals that support social skills could include:

  • Autism support professionals
  • Behavior analysts
  • Behavioral therapists
  • General education teachers
  • Health and P.E. teachers 
  • Occupational therapists
  • Other direct care staff
  • School psychologists

How to Determine What Skills To Teach

It is important to have an assessment conducted to identify your child’s specific needs before social skills are introduced. There are a variety of assessment tools that can be used, including the following:

  • Standardized Assessments

    • Vineland 3
    • Social Responsiveness Scale -2 (SRS-2)
    • Social Skills Improvement System Rating Scale (SSiS-RS)
    • Social-Emotional Assets and Resilience Scales
    • Behavior Assessment Scale for Children 3rd Edition (BASC-3)
  • Informal Assessments

    • Parent/teacher observation and data
    • Child interview

Social Skills Training (SST)

Social Skills Training can help children with autism develop social skills in a structured way. SST implements a wide range of interventions and instructional methods to help an individual understand and improve social skills. SST can be completely customized for each individual child; there is no one-size-fits-all approach. Finding a program that will help your child is essential to their growth and success. These programs focus on different topics and are broken down into three main categories:

Peer Mediated Instruction and Interventions

Peer-Mediated Instruction and Intervention (PMII) educates and trains children without an autism or related diagnosis to be ‘peer mentors’. Peer mentors then work with their classmates with autism on specific social tasks or play interactions.

Social Stories and Scripts

Social stories and scripts involve describing a particular social concept in depth using written or visual materials. These can be customized to visualize the strengths and/or difficulties for a specific individual. Social stories are most effective when combined with other training methods such as role-play, peer-intervention, or rehearsal models where the child practices and receives feedback on their performance. 

Video Modeling

One of the most effective social skills training methods uses video as a tool to teach social concepts. The child watches a video demonstration of a behavior and then attempts to perform the particular social skill immediately after. 

Social Skills Groups

Social skills groups offer an opportunity for children with autism to practice their social skills with each other and/or typical peers on a regular basis. These groups are built for children of similar ages to engage with each other while learning and practicing new skills together. 

Effective Social Skills groups should:

  • Provide structure and predictability
  • Break down abstract social concepts into concrete actions
  • Simplify language and group children by language level
  • Work in pairs or groups with cooperation and partnership encouraged
  • Provide multiple and varied learning opportunities
  • Foster self-awareness and self-esteem
  • Provide opportunities for practice so that skills are used beyond the group in real life settings

Social skills groups are led by a qualified clinician who will oversee and direct these opportunities to practice and generalize skills in more natural environments. Social skills groups are particularly effective because each child gets real life, in-person practice with their peers.

Strategies to Practice Social Skills

Your child will get better at these skills and continue to improve with practice. Parents and family members can help to reinforce new skills with:

  • Practice play
  • Praise
  • Role-play
  • Visual supports
  • Changing settings

Social skills are an integral part of your child’s development and the building of meaningful relationships. Learning, practicing, and mastering these skills will improve their overall quality of life by providing them with the tools they need to try exciting experiences in different surroundings with new people.

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