Simple Strategies for Teaching Social Skills to Children with Autism Spectrum Disorder

Children with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) often experience challenges acquiring social skills through play and school compared with their neuro-typical peers. Without social skills, children with ASD are faced with situations that outweigh their skills causing frustration. This blog gives, with examples, some simple ways you can help as a parent or caregiver to teach social skills to children with Autism Spectrum Disorder so they can interact with others successfully.

group of children playing together in the park demonstrating effective social skills

Social skills are the non-verbal and verbal communications skills used to interact with others, according to the social conventions of a particular context.

Non-verbal communication skills include body language, facial expressions, posture, proximity, listening, grooming and hygiene. Verbal communication skills include greeting others, gaining attention, asking for help, sharing, turn-taking, conversational skills, group work, problem solving and making friends. Children who have social skills difficulties may struggle with many of these skills.

Without these skills when children with ASD are faced with social demands, that outweigh their skills causing them to express their feelings through  challenging behaviour.    

Children with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) often experience challenges related to social skills, particularly with understanding social cues, social reasoning, and social understanding. As a result, attempts to engage in social interaction may be misunderstood by their peers. 

Without appropriate social skills the child with ASD can experience one or all of the following:

  • Fewer attempts to connect socially,
  • Lower self-esteem,
  • Social rejection,
  • Failure,
  • Social isolation, 
  • Anxiety when having to interact with others,
  • Negative self concept (i.e. poor self image, low self esteem and self-worth),
  • Lack of confidence,
  • Become at- risk for developing mental health problems (e.g. depression).

Social skills are fundamental for forming and maintaining healthy relationships and friendships as well as for integration into the workforce. Thus, supporting children with ASD to learn how to interact with others in collaborative and productive ways at any age is an important part of self-management and life skills instruction. 

Specific strategies have been highlighted for use in teaching both younger and older children that allow teachers and caregivers to capitalise on each child’s innate strengths and ability levels. 

Teaching Social Skills to Younger Children and Early Learners with ASD:

1. Teach imitation

Neurotypical children learn play and social skills by imitating their peers during free play as well as structured games and activities.

As children with ASD often lack the communication and attending skills to naturally imitate their peers, teaching imitation skills will help develop a repertoire of vocal and motor responses necessary for use in play and social exchanges.

Examples include kicking a ball, hugging a toy, clapping, stacking a block, saying “go”, and saying “my turn” or “your turn”. Make activities fun and related to a child’s interests to help provide context for practice! 

 

2. Teach new skills in isolation.

As younger children may have difficulty with filtering out stimuli within their environment, it is important to help them practice new skills in calm, controlled settings when possible to best ensure their chances for success and confidence in the natural environment. 

An example of this idea would be teaching a child with ASD to catch and throw a ball in a one-to-one setting with a teacher or caregiver before introducing them to playing "Catch" with peers.

Or, try the popular 'Memory game' in which the child is invited to find matching pictures on cards but play it first one to one before playing in a larger group.

These examples provide an opportunity for children with ASD to focus on one skill at a time without distraction or attempting to combine performing the task and other social skills at the same time.  

When it comes to playing Catch, for example, in a larger group, the child has already mastered the skill of catching a ball and therefore has greater capacity for focusing on learning the social skills involved in the game itself.  

Overall this approach reduces the overload caused by having to learn a number of skills at once which can increase the likelihood of frustration and subsequent problematic behaviour. 

Teaching Social Skills to Older Children with ASD

1. Teach empathy

Understanding and adapting to the perspectives of others is an essential skill for navigating any social environment. While challenges with affect regulation can be present in children with ASD, the capacity for empathy is present and can be developed like any skill.  Empathy can be developed by teaching children to identify, label, and respond to the feelings and emotional states of others based on facial expressions, nonverbal cues such as body language, and language.

Empathy skills are often developed in the natural course of play and social interaction as children and adults display different moods and feelings through their expressions.  

To teach empathy in a more structured manner you can identify scenarios that the child would actually encounter in their lives. By role playing these scenarios you can help the child to firstly, recognise different emotions (for example, a child is looking sad because their shoulders are hunched, they have a lowered gaze, closed arms and using a timid voice).

Secondly, you can help the child think critically to develop an awareness of the other person’s perspectives.

Thirdly, learn responses that show concern and respect for others’ feelings and viewpoints.  The roles can also be reversed in the game by asking the child to act out a feeling and allowing you to guess what it is and if their response was helpful or unhelpful.

Furthermore, adults can model empathy through the day making a conscious effort to externalise their own routine empathy for the benefit of the child they are trying to teach empathy to.

Do this by acknowledging emotional cues, labelling the emotion, connecting their emotion to the context and validating the child’s emotions by using empathetic statements such as:

  • I’m sorry to see that you’re in this situation...
  • I understand this can be frustrating...
  • I see you are frustrated...
  • You look…
  • Sounds like…
  • You seem so…
  • How awful you must feel...
  • I can see that you are feeling …
  • I can hear how upset you are...
  • I’m sorry to see that...
  • I can see how important this is to you...
  • I know this process can be confusing...

2. Use peer models.

Pair older children with peers who exhibit and can organically model desired social skills. As children learn well through observation and imitation, witnessing a peer perform an action or use specific language to access a social environment or activity will help a child strengthen their repertoire of age-appropriate social skills in a natural manner. 

3. Use modeling and rehearsal.

As with any skill, complex social skills such as problem solving, appropriately winning or losing a game, and dealing with disappointment are best practiced in smaller doses before being applied to natural and more fluid situations.

Teachers and caregivers can use scripts to contrive opportunities for practice and provide children with appropriate situational responses and vocabulary.  You can also use this technique when debriefing children after challenging social situations to help them identify their own areas for growth. 

Give multiple opportunities to practice the skill in small, structured groups with same-age peers in a comfortable, fun, and supportive environment. Initially, the individual may need to practice these skills with the instructor and then proceed to reinforce them with peers.  

Through role-playing and videoing practice scenarios, you can provide positive and constructive feedback to shape the individual’s behavior. With the individual you can decide on a private cue or an unobtrusive signal system that you can use to help the individual produce the appropriate behavior.

For example, a hand gesture to indicate the individual needs to lower the voice. This can help fade out the amount of direct prompting you have to provide the individual in a work setting.

Teaching Social Skills For Learners of Any Age:

1. Make it fun and use the natural environment.

Children learn best when they are engaged! Use your learner’s natural interests to embed instruction and reduce the effort needed to practice a new skill. 

Just as turn taking can be practiced during putting a puzzle together or rolling cars down a ramp, empathy can be practiced during imaginative play with dolls or when watching characters in a favourite cartoon. Let your learner lead the way!

2. Reward desired behaviours.

Ideally, use of new social skills will be reinforced by allowing children with ASD to access new social environments and peer groups. Before skills can be used in an applied setting, however, they need to be rewarded during practice!

Use praise, stars, or edible treats to help reward and reinforce a learner along the way. 

Developing social skills is essential for any child’s ability to form meaningful relationships and acquire the tools needed for future independence.

Children with ASD frequently encounter challenges when learning and using these skills, however with targeted instructional strategies and guidance, their ability to thrive in social environments can be supported at any age.

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