Autism is a developmental disorder that characteristically impairs a child’s social skills. Social skills refers to a child’s ability to communicate appropriately with people around them by exhibiting expected social behaviours (Scattone, 2007). Social skills comprise various skillsets such as play skills (e.g. sharing toys), conversation skills (e.g. conversational cues), emotion skills (e.g. understanding others’ feelings) and social problem-solving skills (e.g. resolving conflict). With good social skills, children will know how to act in different social situations. This allows them to form positive friendships and maintain enriching conversations.
Since children with autism want to make friends and talk to others, developing their social skills is important for them to feel a sense of belonging in their social circle and improve their quality of life. However, they often do not know how to communicate in a socially acceptable manner. For example, a child with autism might take another child’s toy without asking. This is a socially unacceptable behaviour as children are expected to ask for permission, but a child with autism might not understand and have trouble following this social rule.
For neurotypical children, social skills are naturally formed through regular interactions with people. However, children with autism have difficulty understanding and reading others, so social skills should be taught intentionally. Here are 5 ways to teach social skills to children with autism:
1. Provide consistent behaviour-specific praises and reinforcement
Praise your child generously whenever you see them exhibiting appropriate social behaviours, and make sure to pair your praise with a specific description of what they did well. For example, if your child looked at you while you were talking, you can exclaim, “Good job for looking at me while I am talking!”. You can also deliver tangible reinforcements, like snacks, alongside praise if your child is indifferent to praise (desiring praise is also a social skill to develop!).
Positive reinforcement is a highly effective method to shape good behaviours in children with autism (Garvey, n.d.). Since your child might struggle with understanding what behaviours are expected of them, praise and reinforcement signals to them that these behaviours are good to show, motivating them to display more of such behaviours.
2. Use social stories and visual aids to introduce social scenarios
Social stories introduce social situations in simple and clear terms that are easily digestible for children with autism (Karkhaneh, 2010). Social stories are useful both as introductory material to a new social behaviour/situation, or as revision and reminders for your child as they navigate daily interactions. After reading a social story with your child, talk about the learning points and check if your child can remember the expected social behaviours discussed.
After your child has some familiarity with the social situation at hand, you can also videotape your child’s interactions and review them with your child. When watching the videos, discuss the happenings both from their perspective as a participant in the interaction and your perspective as an observer. You can take the chance to identify specific behaviours that occurred and offer both positive and constructive feedback.
3. Role-play and practice desired behaviours
Structured role-plays and repetitions are helpful for children who struggle with displaying certain social behaviours. Children with autism often have problems spontaneously mimicking these behaviours, and take longer to pick up social skills. Each type of social interaction should be broken down into separate steps to be taught one-by-one to your child. For example, playing a ball game comprises starting the game, taking turns to pass the ball, and ending the game. You can practise with your child how to take turns, follow rules, and be a good sport whether they win or lose.
You can contrive a practice situation and guide your child through it to help them understand what to expect and what behaviours to display. You can take the role-play a step further by having your child play the role of their peer, to help them gain a better understanding of others and how others may feel or act in these situations. Role-playing allows your child to experiment and learn in a low-risk situation, since they are free to make mistakes without the stress of a public environment. This lowers their anxiety and aversiveness when faced with similar social situations with other people. Sufficient practice will greatly increase the chances of your child’s success in social situations.
Children with autism might face difficulties applying social skills that they have learned in one setting to other settings. Ensure that various adults and family in your child’s life use the same types of prompts for your child to keep the situation as similar as possible to their learned setting. Practising the same social skills in a variety of situations also help your child learn to generalise skills with more ease. It may be a long process for your child to pick up all the social skills that they struggle with, but consistent efforts from everyone involved will create optimum learning environments that enable your child to improve greatly.
Written by Hazel.
Garvey, J. (n.d.). Expert Columns: Putting Positive Reinforcement to Work with Kids at Home. May Institute. https://www.mayinstitute.org/news/acl/asd-and-dd-child-focused/putting-positive-reinforcement-to-work-with-kids-at-home/
Karkhaneh, M., Clark, B., Ospina, M. B., Seida, J. C., Smith, V., & Hartling, L. (2010). Social Stories™ to improve social skills in children with autism spectrum disorder: A systematic review. Autism, 14(6), 641-662.
Scattone, D. (2007). Social skills interventions for children with autism. Psychology in the Schools, 44(7), 717-726.