What Are Social Skills?
Social skills refer to a child’s ability to communicate with others in a way that is acceptable and appropriate for social situations. When a child has social skills, he/she can form friendships and can carry a simple conversation.
Social Skills and Autism
It’s a common misconception that children with autism do not make friends because they are anti-social. This is not the case. Children with autism want to make friends and talk to others, but they don’t always know how to do it properly. They often struggle with being able to maintain eye contact and understand social interaction.
When someone says a child lacks social skills, it means he/she does not display expected behavior around other children, making it harder to make friends.
For instance, an autistic child might take another child’s toy without asking for permission. This is viewed as negative behavior by most people, but a child with autism might not understand.
What Social Skills Are Affected by Autism?
Teaching a child with autism social skills can be a challenge sometimes. This is mainly because one of the key symptoms of autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a lack or delay in social and communication skills.
The symptoms that affect a child’s social skills are:
- Delays in speech development
- Inability to read non-verbal cues
- Failure to understand the feelings of others
- Difficulty understanding jokes, sarcasm, or teasing
- Unable to carry a conversation
- Repeats words and phrases over and over (echolalia)
- Gives unrelated answers to questions
Looking at these symptoms, it is understandable how a child with autism can have a hard time interacting with others. This is why he/she might not make friends easily at school. At home, playing with his/her siblings can seem next to impossible.
What Social Skills Does a Child With Autism Need?
Children with autism need the same level of social skills as their neurotypical peers. Social skills are important for a child to develop confidence, form friendships, and get along with people around him/her.
Author and autism advocate Temple Grandin, who was diagnosed with autism as a toddler, strongly believes children should be taught social skills to help them become more independent.
In an Autism Parenting Magazine interview, Grandin explains that too much alone time for a child on the spectrum is not advisable. “I had a tendency to become a recluse in my room and that wasn’t allowed. If I wanted to play outside for hours experimenting on my kite designs then that was fine. I was not allowed to stay in my room,” she said.
According to Grandin, social skills are not just important for building relationships, but to develop life skills that kids need as adults. “They need to know how to show up on time, learn discipline and responsibility,” she said.
On a social level, a child with autism should learn to:
- Play with others (sharing, taking turns, pretend play)
- Talk to others
- Manage emotions
- Solve problems
Once these basic skills are identified, it’s easier to come up with a plan to improve a child’s social skills.
How To Improve Your Child’s Social Skills
Over the years, scientists and researchers have studied different methods of enhancing social skills for children with autism.
Research on social skills interventions in children with autism has progressed in the last decade. A review of group-based social skills training for school-age children on the spectrum from 1985 to 2006 showed that the data is too small to be conclusive, but ideal methods of research were identified.
Today, parents and caregivers have access to new treatments that have been proven to give children with autism the ability to interact in social situations.
Social Skills Therapy for Autism
To teach a child with autism social skills, parents can seek help from social skills therapists. These experts come from different backgrounds but share the same knowledge and competencies needed to help people with autism develop social skills.
Social skills therapy is mostly based on a concept called Social Thinking. Michelle Garcia Winner, a speech-language pathologist, coined the phrase “social thinking” and transformed it into a strategy to improve the social skills of people on the spectrum.
Therapists use different teaching strategies for students to cope with common social situations. This would include teaching a child with autism how to play, talk, share, and work with other children his/her age. Some sessions are also conducted in a group setting to encourage children to apply what they have learned.
Most schools with autism programs have social skills training available. You can visit the Autism Society of America to check for social skills therapists in your area.
Strategies for teaching and developing social skills
Therapy sessions and expert interventions can improve the social skills of children with autism. But, it is equally important that parents and caregivers reinforce social skills training at home to achieve optimum results.
Here are some strategies that parents and caregivers can use:
Role-playing can help a child learn expected and unexpected behavior in a given scenario. For instance, if a child is going to school for the first time, role-play can help him/her practice the actual event of going to school.
Play games together
Before a child is sent out to play with others, it’s a good idea to “practice” playing with a parent or sibling. Parents can explain how the game works and observe the child’s behavior throughout the game.
Some games to play are:
- Kicking a ball back and forth
- Simon Says
- Hide and Seek
- Simple board games like Jenga or Connect Four
Playing games will teach a child about the importance of rules, taking turns, and being a good sport.
Watch videos or observe others
If a child is anxious about a social activity, such as going to the dentist, you can watch videos of people or kids during a dental visit. It is helpful if you explain to the child what to expect when he/she arrives in the clinic. It can also help the child recognize basic courtesy skills like greeting the doctor and following instructions.
In 1991, consultant and writer Carol Gray came up with Social Stories™ to help children with special needs with self-care and social skills.
A social story is a story with a social element. These stories will further illustrate how people behave when interacting with others and the best ways to work with others to solve problems.
- Social stories are great if you want a child with autism to:
- Develop social skills (sharing, asking for help, saying thank you)
- Understand the feelings of others
- Understand one’s own feelings
- Cope with unexpected changes
- Regulate emotions
There are many books that teach social skills to children with autism spectrum disorders. If your child is an avid reader, then this approach is the most sensible way to go.
Parents can also learn to write their own social stories based on their child’s behavior. To do this, parents should familiarize themselves with the basics of creating social stories including choosing the types of sentences to be used, creating characters, and identifying the purpose of the story.
Interaction With Neurotypical Children
Children with autism can learn from their neurotypical peers when it comes to social skills. If the child with autism is not yet exposed to children his age (that are not on the spectrum), then a parent can arrange playdates to make this happen.
How to Teach Social Skills In Different Environments
Some children with autism can learn a skill within a certain environment but will stop applying the skill when the situation changes. Parents, teachers, and caregivers must all work together to help a child with autism become regular with his/her ability to socialize.
Social Skills In the Classroom
For school-age children with autism, attending school itself is a challenge they face every day. In addition to academic challenges, they also deal with other children in their class. Teachers can help children with autism with their social skills by:
- Making the classroom comfortable (no loud noise or bright lights)
- Encourage the child to take part in activities
- Pick topics and toys that he/she might have a great interest in
- Model good social skills
Social Skills at Home
Home is where most children spend their time. Often, it is where they learn basic social skills.
Parents and caregivers are expected to reinforce what a child is learning from social skills training or school. Talking to the child’s therapist or teacher will help parents create their own ways to teach social skills at home.
Games and visual aids can be used to help a child learn how to read emotions, communicate with others, understand social rules, and solve problems.
Social skills are vital to everyday life. Children with autism may have difficulty acquiring these skills in the beginning. But with the help of qualified experts and educators, it can be done.