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Social Skills and Autism: What You Need to Know

Your child's first day at school is an exciting milestone, but it can also be a little scary. You want them to make friends, succeed in their studies, and enjoy learning. But what if your child lacks the critical skills to accomplish these goals?

Children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) have trouble with social communication and interaction. But social skills therapy can help children become more comfortable in different environments.

Read on to learn all about the link between social skills and autism and how you can help!

Social Skills and Autism

One of the core deficits of ASD lies in social interaction. Neurotypical children quickly pick up social behaviors in group settings. But children with ASD need to be explicitly taught what to do in social situations.

Social skills deficits in children with autism center around pragmatics. Social communication disorder (SCD) is a similar diagnosis that often gets lumped under the umbrella of ASD. Some of the common signs include difficulties with:

  • Responding when spoken to
  • Understanding gestures and body language
  • Sharing and regulating emotions
  • Listening to others without interrupting
  • Staying on topic and following the conversation
  • Providing relevant details
  • Maintaining eye contact
  • Understanding the differences between greetings, comments, questions, and so on
  • Differentiating between sarcasm, humor, and idioms
  • Making lasting friendships

Social skills therapy for children with autism is vital for their overall development. And studies show that the earlier these interventions start, the better the outcome.

Social Skills Therapy

Psychologists, speech-language therapists, teachers, and parents can be involved in the therapy process. Social skills therapy is a combination of activities, roleplays, and games. The main goal is to show children how to handle different social situations.

Helping Children Develop Social Skills

Before you set off on the social skills therapy journey, you need to adjust your thinking. Start by removing your assumptions and biases about social interactions.

Social interactions are generally easy for neurotypical people. But assuming that social skills are a simple concept can be harmful to the child's growth. Instead, accept that they will learn these behaviors at their own pace.

At the same time, let go of right and wrong thinking. Instead, label actions as "expected" and "unexpected." Explain to the child what the expected actions are and why they need to follow them. And don't forget to elaborate on why unexpected actions might confuse others.

For example, if the child struggles to maintain eye contact, don't label it as "wrong." Try explaining that people expect their friends to look at them when they talk. Equate making eye contact with maintaining friendships and paying attention!

Autism Activities at Home

Neurotypical parents might struggle with teaching social skills because they come naturally to them. But introducing communication skills in the home is simple with the help of a few activities!

Acting as an example for your child is a great way to teach social skills. Emotion regulation is often a problem for children with ASD. Explaining your thoughts out loud can help children make connections.

If you rip your sweater, you can say, "Oh no, I ripped my favorite sweater. That makes me sad and a little mad. Should I fix it or buy a new one?" Demonstrating your thought process can help them organize their own emotions.

Other ways to teach social skills at home include:

  • Roleplaying to show expected reactions
  • Playing games to demonstrate sharing and turn-taking
  • Encouraging playgroups and participating in activities
  • Using pictures and stories to show behaviors
  • Discuss outcomes, make connections, and explain details explicitly

Video modeling and video self-modeling (VSM) have shown promising results in intervention studies. Children watch short videos that model specific behaviors, like making eye contact or greeting friends. Then they can try to mimic and practice those behaviors.

In VSM, the child is the model. For example, you can record your child playing a board game and watch it back together. As you do, discuss how to accept losing, turn-taking, and so on.

Social Skills Training at School

Social skills therapy should continue over to the classroom. One of the first things instructors need to do is, create a conducive environment.

Children with ASD often struggle with sensory issues. 98% of parents surveyed reported that their child had sensory difficulties. To accommodate this, educators should aim to create inclusive classrooms.

Workspaces that are quiet have soft lighting, and lack distractions are best. Hunger and thirst can also affect attention levels in the learning environment. So having consistent snack times and easy access to water can prevent loss of focus.

Peer mentors are an excellent way to encourage neurodiverse students to socialize. The educator can train one student, a group, or the whole classroom to act as tutors or buddies. The peers can model proper behavior and facilitate learning experiences through play.

Studies have shown that peer mentors are most successful for children between 3 and 8 years old. And it works both ways as students who act as peer mentors enjoy the process as well!

Other ways to incorporate social skills training into the classroom include:

  • Group role plays focused on classroom behaviors
  • Reading and discussing social stories that show acceptable responses
  • Creating emotion, greetings, and friendship worksheets and activities.
  • Exploring partner and group games to encourage turn-taking

The social skills training at school should mirror at-home activities, and vice versa. If parents and educators create a cohesive plan, the child can reach a functional level of communication.

Learning the Basics of Communication

As a parent or teacher, it can be frustrating to watch children struggle with social skills. These struggles affect them in every aspect of life, from relationships to academics. Their career, mental health, and family life can take a hit as they enter the adult world.

But social skills and autism don't have to be mutually exclusive. Through effective therapy, children with ASD can learn communication skills!

If you're ready to help your child build their social skills, browse our Autism eBook library! You'll also find helpful ready-to-use aids like flashcards and worksheets.

Alice Kassotaki - Speech Language Pathologist MSc, BSc

copyright Upbility 2022

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