Picture this: You’re at a restaurant, ready to order. You look around and make eye contact with a waiter who appears to be free nearby, and raise your hand to call them over. Once they arrive, you and your company start taking turns placing orders for what each of you want to eat. And when everyone’s order has been taken, you thank the waiter and happily await that delicious pasta you’ve been craving…
Social Interaction Skills
All of the parts of the above scenario are different social interactions, and our everyday lives are filled with them. Navigating them may require a good number of skills. Social interaction skills as a whole refer to the understanding of how to act in response to certain situations, actions or people. Although it may seem simple, it actually requires multiple steps (The Spectrum, 2019) that most people do subconsciously, including:
Paying attention to the appropriate social information
Interpreting what is going on in the situation
Problem solving in certain situations
Responding in those situations
For neurotypical individuals, such skills are acquired over time from watching others interact and learning from observation, as well as experiencing these situations themselves. For people with Autism, however, many tend to struggle in their ability to respond in the expected way in certain situations. Often, they find it difficult to interpret others’ behaviours and expectations, or know what to say and do in certain situations that they are not completely used to. This may result in behaviours such as struggling to respond to certain social cues from others, or difficulty in establishing and maintaining relationships, or difficulties sharing their interests or emotions (American Psychiatric Association, 2013).
People with ASD vary in their individual levels of social communication skills and behaviours, so while they may perform well in a particular area of social interaction, they may still struggle with another. A common misconception that many have from observing individuals with ASD is that they have no desire to build relationships and avoid people or social situations. As a matter of fact, many individuals with Autism do want to interact with other people, just like anyone else, but simply struggle to do so due to deficits in the necessary areas (Bellini, 2009).
Social Interaction Interventions
What can we do to help children develop their skills, in that case? Social interaction skills, like any other, can be taught to children with Autism. While some children with ASD are able to learn from observation, many others need to learn these skills through explicit teaching, followed by practice and application of these skills in different situations to generalise them.
These skills may include:
Play Skills such as taking turns and sharing
Communication Skills such as responding to others and reading verbal or non-verbal cues
Emotional Skills such as understanding how others feel in a certain situation
Problem-Solving Skills such as how to respond appropriately to conflicts
There are a multitude of ways that these skills can be taught to children with ASD, depending on which method of teaching suits them the best. Some options may include:
Role-playing refers to letting the child or children act out and perform certain skills that they have recently learned in order to familiarise themselves with it, or skills that they may be displaying difficulty in performing (Bellini, 2009). Role-playing provides a pretend environment that may be similar to the situations in the child’s real life, allowing them to practise skills that would be useful in those situations without the stress and pressure it would otherwise have.
Social stories are, as the name suggests, stories that describe social situations with the end goal of teaching about social situations and rules through the characters and sequence of events (Social Stories, 2022). These often place an emphasis on social cues to watch and possible responses in reaction to situations that occur. Social stories tend to be individually tailored to the learner’s abilities, attention span, learning style and the area of skills to target, increasing its effectiveness in teaching the social skills (Gray, 2018).
Video modelling refers to letting the child observe a behaviour from a model (e.g. a parent, friends, or even themselves!) with a video demonstration and imitating the behaviour themselves (Bellini, 2009). By using a video, it provides a visual form of instruction without necessarily requiring face-to-face interaction (which some individuals with Autism struggle with) (Corbett & Abdullah, 2005) to ease the intake of information, while modelling allows the child to physically practise the skill, remember and master it eventually.
These methods tend to be most effective when taught in a naturalistic group setting, where the child is taught the social interaction skills throughout their normal routines while motivating them through incorporating activities that they are interested in. Having the social interaction interventions done while the child is highly motivated and able to practise the skills with the rest of their peers without it being too awkward or out of the norm was found to greatly improve skills such as interactive play, peer interaction and giving attention to the same items as their peers (Hu et al., 2018; Hu et al., 2021). Hence, it is important to try and teach these social skills in situations where the child would be able to apply and practise them immediately, and provide an environment where they can learn social rules, with the guidance of teachers and feedback from their peers.
How Else Can I Help?
On an individual level, what can we do or take note of when interacting with people with Autism to help with their interaction skills? Firstly, creating an environment or situation where the person can focus on the social information. This includes calling their name so that they know explicitly that someone is talking to them, or ensuring that the child is paying attention to you before giving an instruction. If they do make ‘social mistakes’, give prompts and cues for what should have been said or done, rather than simply saying “no” or “don’t do that”. Many people with Autism require explicit teaching, so providing clarity on what they should have done helps greatly for learning. Most importantly, be patient with people with Autism. Those with Autism generally process information more slowly than their neurotypical peers, so wait a bit longer for their responses as it might not be that they don’t know something, they’re just thinking it through!
Written by: Kai ◡̈
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