Social Skills for Autistic Children
Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is known for hindering a child’s social skills. There are many therapeutic programs and non-clinical techniques that can help your autistic child with improving their social skills.
In this article we are going to explain why autistic children struggle with social skills. We will also give you some strategies to help develop your child’s social skills.
But first let’s define social skills.
What are social skills?
According to the American Psychology Association (APA) Dictionary of Psychology, social skills are “a set of learned abilities”. In other words, both autistic and neurotypical children can develop new social skills and enhance their existing ones when taught how to do so.
The APA dictionary’s definition goes on to say that social skills “enable an individual to interact competently and appropriately in a given social context”.
Here are some of the prevalent and most important social skills in today’s society:
- The ability to regulate your feelings and behavior
- Coping with disappointment
- Communication and friendship-making skills
- Interpersonal problem solving
Most children develop these skills in school and with their friends. However, if you have an autistic child, you probably know that they may have a hard time with some or all of the social capabilities above. This is especially true when it comes to cognitive regulation, coping, and communication.
Why do autistic children struggle with social skills?
Autistic children struggle with certain conversational, behavioral, and communicative skills that are important for making and keeping friends, including the following:
- Approaching classmates to start a conversation
- Responding when someone talks to or approaches them
- Maintaining eye contact when speaking or listening to others
- Paying attention to body language and interpreting people’s non-verbal suggestions
- Showing empathy and understanding others’ perspectives
Your autistic child may find it hard to apply these communication methods in social settings, even if they’re interested in making new friends and engaging with others.
As a result, your child might become socially anxious. In turn, they may avoid interacting with friends which makes it harder for them to develop communication and social skills.
Some of these problems are caused by the wrong training and support programs.
For example, if your child has somewhat advanced social capabilities, placing them in a support group with low functioning autistic children that lack basic communication techniques may cause your child to get bored and lose interest in participating.
On the other hand, when your child needs help with fundamental social skills, placing them in an advanced training program for kids with ASD might intimidate them and create even more social anxiety.
In short, the right teaching methods should be based on your child’s specific abilities and the social skills that they need to enhance.
Before we discuss the solution to help your child with their social skills let’s examine some of the most important social skills that your child will need.
The Most Important Social Skills to Teach Autistic Children
As a parent, there are some particular social skills that you want your autistic child to learn. These skills are vital because they break basic communication barriers and act as a foundation that your kid can build on to further improve their performance in social settings.
Here are some of these crucial social skills that you should teach your autistic child:
- Playing With Others: Show your child how they can share toys with their classmates, engage in pretend play, and remain patient when taking turns during an activity or game.
- Talking to Others: Many children with ASD require guidance on how to start a conversation, respond when people approach them, and keep a discussion interesting. Training them on maintaining the appropriate amount of eye contact and mastering body language and non-verbal cues is very important.
- Managing Emotions: When your autistic child knows how to control their emotions, social anxiety and stress will become less of a problem. Moreover, autistic kids who manage their emotions may find it easier to make friends.
- Solving Problems: In the same vein, you want your son or daughter to solve problems in a calm manner (without resorting to hitting or throwing toys). This also enables them to make friends, participate in group activities, etc.
So what should you do if your child has not mastered these fundamental life skills? The answer more and more parents are turning to is ABA therapy.
ABA therapy can improve autistic children’s social skills
Applied behavior analysis (ABA) therapy is considered the gold standard when it comes to behavior modification for autistic children.
One of the main reasons that parents hire an ABA therapist is to help improve their child’s social skills.
Here is a breakdown of the steps that your therapist will go through to help your child improve their social skills.
First, the ABA therapist will identify the areas that your child struggles with. For example, they may get angry and throw objects at their classmates if someone asks them to share a toy.
After defining these problems, the ABA therapist takes each issue and teaches it to your child as an individual social skill. In our example, the therapist would coach your child on how to manage their anger, share with others, and communicate by using words (instead of throwing objects).
Here are some prevalent social skills training methods that many ABA practitioners rely on:
- Comic Strip Conversations: The therapist would draw thought bubbles that illustrate what others may be thinking. For instance, they could draw a picture of your kid’s classmate with a bubble that says: “My friend threw a pen at me. I am upset”.
- Hidden Curriculum: The hidden curriculum technique educates children with ASD about nonverbal and unspoken rules, such as how it’s rude to eat someone else’s food or unwrap a friend’s birthday present.
- Social Narratives and Stories: This approach utilizes stories and pictures to show the child what would happen in different social scenarios. To give an example, a therapist could use a story to demonstrate to your son or daughter the importance of waiting turns to play with a toy. One narrative can highlight how sad their friend would react when your kid takes the toy by force, while the other scenario tells a happy tale of two friends who enjoy a lot of activities together because they know how to share and wait turns.
A professional and licensed ABA therapist will effectively implement these techniques.
However, you should not only rely on your therapist to help with your child’s social skills. There is a lot that you can do as a parent to help improve your child’s social skill set.
Additional Strategies for Teaching and Developing Social Skills
Not only can you implement some of the strategies that we will outline below at home, but you may also use them to coach your kid on different types of social skills and appropriate behaviors.
Verbal and physical role-playing sessions are both useful. For instance, you could pretend to be your child’s friend and play with a dollhouse. Next, your kid could rehearse a script that shows them how to appropriately ask for their turn. If they get it right, you can say “Yes, you can play with the dollhouse because you are so nice and polite!”.
Similarly, you could respond (during the role playing) by saying: “Yes, I will give you the dollhouse after I finish playing with it in a few minutes”. After that, observe your child’s behavior to see if they can be patient and wait their turn.
Playing Games Together
There are many types of games that you can play with your autistic son or daughter while teaching them about social skills. It is a good idea to focus on the ones that they regularly play in school or games that require using the skills that you want them to master.
Watching Videos or Observing Others
When you and your child watch how people behave and interact in group settings, your kid will practically learn the importance of social skills.
For instance, you can go to a park and observe other children. Next, show your child how the kids react positively to certain behaviors (such as sharing) in comparison to their negative reactions when one of their friends cries or bites them.
Reading Social Stories
Social stories are a great way for your autistic boy or girl to know how to make a distinction between desirable and undesirable habits. The best social stories are written ones that have lots of pictures.
To give an example, a story about two classmates who are having a conversation could be about communication and eye contact.
In the first scenario, one of them quickly loses interest in the discussion due to their friend staring at the floor or the window.
In the second one, the talking person stays interested in the conversation and starts asking their friend questions about their hobbies or preferences because the latter is maintaining eye contact and demonstrating that they care about what their classmate is saying.
Keep in mind that social stories can teach your kid many other social skills that are important in today’s society. You want to focus on the ones that your child uniquely struggles with.
Managing emotions, solving problems, and practicing conversational manners are ones that autistic kids commonly have problems with.
Luckily, there are many ABA therapists who are specifically trained to work with ASD children on their social skills. In fact, parents, caretakers, and siblings can also apply these techniques at home or in non-medical settings.
Doing so equips your autistic son or daughter with the capabilities that they need to make friends in school. Moreover, the right therapeutic and coaching programs enable them to continue to improve and enhance the essential social skills that they will rely on throughout their life.