The ABCs of Social Skill Development

Encouraging children with autism spectrum disorder to socialize.

When a child has an Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), you know how hard he or she has to work to achieve academic success in school. But is this child given a chance to practice social skills, which are also affected by ASD?

Children with ASD sometimes have a great deal of difficulty understanding social behaviors and interactions, and these skills are usually not taught directly in school. On the playground and other places at school, there are large amounts of unstructured time that leave them to sink or swim in a complex social environment.

They often have trouble:

  • opening and closing a conversation.
  • initiating peer interaction and joining play
  • decoding facial expressions and body language.
  • observing and imitating appropriate social behavior in specific situations.
  • predicting and understanding the emotions and reactions of others.

Children with ASD don't automatically acquire social skills that come to others naturally through repeated exposure in social situations. Instead, they need to be taught explicitly and given the opportunity to practice, practice, practice.

The first step is to identify the child's unique social skills deficit. Some children may find it impossible to interact with peers one-on-one; others may have difficulty in an informal group setting. A professional speech pathologist or psychologist is critical in determining the child's specific difficulties.

Once the specific problems are determined, a customized program featuring observation, modeling, rehearsal and reinforcement are the most effective methods for them to learn and sustain long-term social skills.

Make Play Time Count

Parents and caregivers are encouraged to make the most of child-friendly play time activities that allow children to teach and practice social skills. Here are some easy, "low-tech" suggestions.

  1. Scrapbooking, today's craze for young and old, is a fun activity through which you can teach children about emotions. You can help a child with ASD recognize the feelings and thoughts of others by creating an emotional scrapbook, featuring magazine pictures and photographs that show people participating in social situations while expressing their feelings. Talk with the child about how the people in the pictures are feeling based on their facial expressions and body language.
  2. Fun books and board games, such as Do Watch Listen Say (Quill) and Boardmaker (Mayer-Johnson), provide social skill development activities in workbook format that are disguised as play. They encourage the development of skills essential to social functioning, including reciprocity, imitation and conversation.
  3. Charades is a fun game for young children. Have your child with ASD engage in role-playing that involves acting out social interactions that he or she would typically encounter in an unstructured school situation. For example, ask the child to respond to a peer who has invited him to play kickball during recess. Through this "game," the child can learn the proper social interaction.
  4. Read-aloud stories, particularly those that are written in the first person perspective of a child, can show how someone thinks and acts in different social situations. For example, if the child has trouble on the swing set, a social story might explore this situation in detail, introducing the concepts of taking turns and asking a classmate to play. Difficult situations are expressed, and the child can learn the correct way to act. For example, if the child in the story says "It's hard to wait my turn when I want to ride on the swing now," you can practice appropriate responses and actions with your child.

Electronics are Educational, Too

There are also "high-tech" methods for practicing social situations that encourage skill development, improve skill performance and reduce ineffective behaviors by allowing the child to learn through personal experiences. Because they provide opportunities to pause and discuss information, to replay scenarios for greater recall and understanding, and to repeat exercises as many times as necessary, high-tech methods are typically very effective. Specific exercises include:

  1. Voice-recording systems can help children with ASD to identify topic maintenance, intonation and perseveration. When children are allowed to listen to themselves speak, it is easier for them to understand and respond to the specific difficulties they may have in communicating with peers.
  2. Television programs and videos that feature dramatic emotions and social scenarios can be effective in showing appropriate behavior for the child with ASD. If a caregiver, educator or practitioner takes the time to discuss the characters' actions and reactions with the child, age-appropriate television shows and videos can be a cost-effective and risk-free method for analyzing social interactions.
  3. Social training software programs are appealing to children who love playing on the computer. Games that depict social scenarios and ask children with ASD to determine what should be said or done next are highly motivating. Available social training software includes the CD-ROM series from Social Skill Builder, which teaches children the rules of social communication. In particular, School Rules! Volumes 1 and 2, like their other programs, use interactive video sequences to imitate scenarios where children commonly interact with peers in an unstructured school environment. Programs like School Rules! allow children to practice everything from the right amount of social behaviors in the locker room to appropriate lunchtime interaction in a safe, non-threatening environment.

Without the social skills they need, children with ASD may dread unstructured play periods. But, that is only the beginning of what could be a downward spiral to anxiety and depression. If they carry their deficits into adulthood, they may spend their lives feeling lonely and rejected.

There is great hope for these children with the various methods and tools now available to teach social skill development. By working together to determine what is the best strategy for each child, parents, educators and professionals will see that children with ASD can achieve social as well as academic success.