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How to enhance social skills for children with autism

Before taking any big steps forward, it is important to first empower our children by helping them develop and acquire social skills they can then apply appropriately in context.

Every parent, surely, hopes to see their children succeed in forming beautiful friendships and enjoying them. For most children, this is usually the norm as basic social skills are acquired quickly and easily. However, for children with autism, the process takes a longer time and often need to be explicitly taught. The earlier it is, the better.

Acquiring relevant social skills through home therapy

Before taking any big steps forward, it is important to first empower our children by helping them develop and acquire social skills they can then apply appropriately in context. The basic premise of learning can only occur when your child is ready and paying attention. Therefore, having home therapy sessions are crucial to helping prepare the child for attending social classes (one of the strategies which will be covered), which encompasses building and applying various social skills.

The 1 to 1 session will allow the child to develop good sitting behaviour, the ability to follow simple instructions and learn to attend to a given task with minimal guidance. When the child is ready to learn and has developed the necessary skills, it would be time to get him/her to learn in a group setting. Click here to understand the importance of starting home-based therapy before joining social group classes, in our previous article.

Strategies to enhance social skills

Most children with autism have difficulty developing a theory of mind - the ability to think about mental states, both your own and those of others.

The emergence of the theory of mind is crucial during the developmental process. By forging a strong theory of mind, it plays an important role in helping us understand how people think, and how people predict and engage in social relationships. With enough practice, a child can develop relevant social skills that can help to enhance their participation in community, and support outcomes like happiness and friendships.

In order to forge a strong theory of mind, here are some strategies:

  • Thought and feeling activity

Prepare a range of flashcards that consist of basic emotions (happy/sad/angry/scared) to more complicated ones (ashamed/nervous). The flashcards should portray characters participating in various social context and showing different facial expressions. You may use pictures from books, magazines, newspapers, and even the internet!

Begin by asking the child to pick out an emotion, eg. “Point to happy”. Then, follow up with the question of “How is he feeling?” to help them make the link between the question and the emotion of “happy”. Note that you should only follow up with the question if the child manages to identify the emotion correctly.

Once the child is able to successfully identify the correct emotion, it is time to move on to helping them understand the “why” behind the emotions. You can ask questions such as “Why is the child sad?” or “What is making him sad?” to help them to understand possible reasons underlying the emotions in the picture.

  • Social Stories

A Social Story presents social concepts and rules to children in the form of a brief story. This is effective in helping the child learn socially appropriate behaviour and responses. By explicitly pointing out details about common social settings, it helps the child pick up cues they might not have noticed on their own.

Start by selecting an area that the child is facing difficulty in. For example, your child could be having a hard time keeping his hands to himself in the playground. If so, you could present him with a social story about respecting friends by keeping his hands to himself when playing.

Read the selected story with the child twice to ensure that they completely understand. After which, get the child to tell you what they understood from the story in their own words. Follow up with relevant questions, such as asking the child, “Why is she crying?”, “What should you do when you see a friend who is sad?” or “What happens if you hit your friend’s face? How would they feel?”

This teaches the child to empathise with others and develop their perspective-taking skills. It helps the child understand what to do in a given situation, gain better knowledge about how others feel, and why they should respond with a specific behaviour.

  • Join social classes

Attending social classes is beneficial for children with special needs as it allows them the opportunity to practice their social skills with each other in a safe space.

A group class would typically focus on conversational skills, appropriate use of words, identifying sources of friends, entering and exiting conversations, and managing peer conflicts and rejections. During class, instructors will go through specific rules and steps of social behaviours. They are usually taught in the form of songs, games, and play. By developing vital social skills to maintain peer relationships, it builds up a child's confidence, self-esteem, and increases their emotional resilience. 

In addition, successful interaction with peers can help children to learn to relax and have fun in social settings! It also encourages the development of critical skills including language and speech; peer interaction allows children to practice their listening comprehension (receptive language), eye contact and interpretation of facial expressions.

  • Above all else, believe in your child.

All of the above strategies aim to strengthen a child's theory of mind concept. They encourage children to develop empathy and learn how to accept differing perspectives. 

Additionally, you should also have the belief that your child is capable of learning these skills. When a child knows and feels that you believe in them, they are more likely to feel encouraged to put in more effort in trying, and crucially, develop belief in themselves.

The ability to engage in social interactions predict plenty of outcomes such as cognitive skills, emotional regulation, motivation, and self-esteem (Thompson, 2017) . By improving social confidence through the above strategies, we can mitigate the risk of other developing issues.

Written by Jermaine.


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