How to Increase Social Interaction for Children with Autism?
“My child talks in school but not so much at home or with us. Is there anything we can do?” A lot of parents and caregivers share this sentiment as they hear about what their children did in school that involved social interaction. Several articles have discussed how we can increase communication and interaction for children with autism especially in classroom or controlled settings. As children spend more time at home with their families, it is crucial for caregivers to support the development of social skills for them in as many ways as possible. With the right kind of tools, understanding, and skills, here are some ways to increase social interaction for children with autism:
1. Through positive reinforcement
Behaviourist theories state that behaviours are strengthened by positive consequences, thus leading to such behaviours repeating afterwards. When we get rewarded for doing a good job, we would do it again since we like getting rewarded. This works effectively for children with autism.
Start with small, simple tasks that they can manage, like greeting a person or requesting for a toy. Have reinforcers or the child’s favourite toys (or snacks, if necessary) ready for use. Every time they perform the desired behaviours, give a specific praise like “Good job saying hi to your friend” or “I like that you asked nicely for your toy” and reward them with the reinforcer immediately after they performed the desired behaviours. Once they are more comfortable or they find positive value in the social interactions, slowly fade away the reinforcers.
2. Through play and games
Play supports the development of language and social skills. Children learn a lot through play, especially since it does not feel like work. For children with autism, games can act as a key to social interactions through the use of specific interests (Koegel et a., 2012). When the game is fun and caters to their interest, they will be more likely to participate and interact with others.
Choose games where you can fit in elements of their favourite concepts (animals, colours, shapes, etc), cartoons, or songs (“Wheels on the bus”, “Twinkle, twinkle little star”) to attract and sustain their attention. Additionally, choose games that provide opportunities for some form of verbal exchange or social interaction like “Simon Says” (i.e. “Simon says give mummy a high-five”, “Simon says say a big hello to your friend”) and “What time is it, Mr Wolf?” (i.e. Players ask, “What time is it, Mr Wolf?” then count the number of steps to take when “Mr Wolf” gives the time, learning to wait and taking turns becoming “Mr Wolf”).
3. Through social stories, visual aids and role-play
Social stories are stories that describe specific situations, topics, desired behaviours and social skills through short and clear sentences or phrases alongside pictures to match each sentence. They help to explain situations (i.e. toilet routine, going to school, playing with friends) and topics (i.e. how to calm down when angry, bullying, sharing) in ways that are easily understood and interesting for children with autism. Apart from social stories, there are video demonstrations that depict such situations as well.
When going through a social story or video, it would be good to ask questions to allow for two-way interactions instead of relying on the caregiver to read the story or only letting the video play – take this opportunity to ask questions that are related to the content and to repeat what was mentioned (i.e. “When I share my toys with my friends, my friends will feel ____?” “When you feel angry, what should you do? Count one to ten, what else?”)
After going through social stories and videos, create a setting where you and your children can play specific roles. This allows them to understand situations better as they experience it first-hand and to make ‘mistakes’ so that they can learn what to say and what not to say before facing them in real life.
4. Through real-life interactions and daily routines
An effective way of teaching is when it is done in a familiar and natural setting. When going through daily routines, create opportunities to allow for children to narrate or fill in words in a conversation. For example, a morning routine can start from the time they wake up – caregivers can start, “First, we make the ____?” and allow children to fill in the word, “bed”. When they fill in successfully, praise them for making the effort and continue, “After we make the bed, what’s next?”
Apart from fixed routines, it can also be spontaneous like if the caregiver or child spots a car or an animal while walking outside, start a conversation, “Look! What’s that?” Keep the conversation going with WH questions that match their current level of understanding (i.e. “What is it/he/she doing?” “Where are they going?” “Who is that?” “Why are they doing that?” “How are they going to do that?”).
All in all, there are abundant ways and opportunities to increase social interaction for children with autism outside of the classroom. We learn by watching others and having our own trial-and-error in our everyday lives. It is okay to make mistakes and to go according to the children’s pace of learning and understanding. Children with autism can express their emotions not just with words but also through facial expressions and body language when given sufficient opportunities and adequate support and encouragement.
Written by: Alisha Banu
Koegel, R., Fredeen, R., Kim, S., Danial, J., Rubinstein, D., & Koegel, L. (2012). Using perseverative interests to improve interactions between adolescents with autism and their typical peers in school settings. Journal of Positive Behavior Interventions, 14(3), 133–141. doi: 10.1177/1098300712437043