However, social skills can be particularly challenging for those who have autism. Like any skill, social skills can be improved with the right strategies. In this guide, we’ll provide helpful tips, resources and technology that you can use to help your child develop social skills or improve your own social skills.
What are social skills?
Social skills are the suite of skills that help us interact with others. Having good social skills means you understand the customs and guidelines that most people instinctively use to interact with each other. These customs and guidelines aren’t always obvious or explicitly taught. Therefore, it’s often tricky for austic persons to understand what is expected socially.
Most people acquire social skills naturally, similar to how they learn language skills. Most people have an internal socialising ‘map’ that tell them what to say and what to do in different situations. On an actual map, there are signs and indicators that tell us where to go and what to do—such as where to turn, different colours for different terrain, and so on.
However, individuals with autism may struggle to learn and develop social skills. This makes it challenging for them to understand the social “map.” They either don’t recognise the signs, or don’t understand what to do socially when they see them.
Much like learning how to read a map, social skills can be learned by autistic persons. They need the support of their loved ones as well as some professional help to get there.
Identifying deficits in social skills
In order to know how to improve, you need to know what you need to improve on. Therefore, one of the most important steps in training social skills for autism is identifying deficits. A ‘deficit’ is an area that needs improvement.
How do we find out where to improve? It can involve observing and assessing an individual’s current level of functioning, as well as noting any areas that need improvement. It’s useful to assess their verbal and non-verbal communication abilities. It also helps to observe their ability to interact with others and manage their emotions.
If you have autism, it can be challenging to self-assess, so you may need the help of a health professional. Speech pathologists or psychologists can help.
Parents or caregivers of children with autism can refer a child to a specialist. Specialists that can help include speech pathologists, psychologists or developmental paediatricians, especially those who have experience working with children on the autism spectrum.
Examples of communication that someone with autism may struggle with include:
- Eye contact: autistic people generally report that maintaining eye contact makes them feel uncomfortable. This can make it a challenge for them to read others’ emotions from their facial expressions.
- Limited facial expressions: some with autism find expressing and interpreting facial expressions to be challenging.
- Differences in gestures and body language: austic persons often differ from neurotypical people in how they use gestures and body language. This creates barriers to understanding.
- Tone and voice pitch: these are often hard for a person with autism to understand or express. This means a joking tone, sarcasm or an angry tone of voice may be misinterpreted. It also means an autistic individual may use the wrong tone of voice for the situation, such as speaking in a monotone even when excited.
- Limited vocabulary and repetition: an autistic person often has a more limited vocabulary. Thus, they may find it difficult to explain themselves and express their needs.
- Challenges with pragmatics: they may not understand some of the ‘rules’ of conversation. Examples include: who’s turn it is to speak, or what tone of voice is expected.
- Difficulty with abstract language: idioms, figures of speech, playing on words – these can all be difficult to parse. They may take abstract language literally, leading to confusion.
The first step is to identify any areas for improvement. Then, it is important to create a plan that outlines goals and strategies for addressing them. These should focus on specific areas such as self-regulation, communication skills, self-advocacy, problem solving, interpersonal relationships and executive functioning. Strategies might include role playing activities; online games and activities that teach social skills in a safe space; social stories; positive reinforcement techniques; and prompting techniques. It is also important to provide consistent feedback throughout each session. This way, the individual knows how he or she is progressing towards meeting their goals.
Who can teach social skills for autism?
There are a number of professionals that can teach social skills. Paediatricians, psychiatrists, psychologists, therapists, and educators are all involved in teaching social skills to those with autism.
These healthcare professionals have the experience and knowledge necessary for helping individuals with autism understand and use verbal and non-verbal cues to communicate. Occupational therapists can also provide assistance in developing communication abilities. They can assess fine and gross motor skills, which can impact the ability to communicate through gestures and body language. Since autistic people often have difficulty processing everyday sensory information, OTs can evaluate an individual’s sensory processing and help develop strategies to improve communication and social skills.
Other organisations such as special schools offer programs specially designed to help children on the spectrum develop social skills through structured activities that involve role playing and practice sessions. Many of these programs make use of visual aids such as flashcards to aid communication between instructor and student, which makes them very effective at teaching different forms of communication.
Additionally, many parents choose to supplement their child’s learning by enrolling them in activities like dance classes or sports teams where they can learn how to interact with peers one-on-one in a safe environment.
To supplement in-person assistance, many people find great success using online resources like Social Express, which offers interactive lessons tailored specifically for individuals with autism who want help developing social skills. These research-based games teach communication, conflict resolution, recognising and coping with emotions, and more.
Strategies for training social skills
What can you do as a parent if your child is autistic? There’s a lot you can do to help.
The following strategies are primarily intended for parents who want to help an autistic child. However, these strategies can be used to help anyone communicate more effectively with an autistic friend, family member or co-worker. Bear in mind, if the autistic individual you want to help is an adult and has not specifically requested your help, don’t impose any of these strategies without their consent. No-one, whether they are neurodivergent or neurotypical, wants to be treated patronisingly.
Assess social abilities
It’s important to understand your child’s current social abilities. Observe and assess features of their behaviour such as their attention span, communication level and sensitivity to their surroundings. This will help you communicate in a way that addresses the specific challenges they need to overcome with regards to social skills.
Utilise visuals and props
Visuals and props may be incredibly useful to assist in helping children with autism learn social skills.
Many individuals with autism respond better to activities that have visual elements, or when taught through modeling rather than verbal instruction. For example, appropriate to age and ability, you can use picture cards, educational games, puppets and dolls to make social skills instruction more engaging and relatable for the individual.
For example, to explain what’s going to happen before your child gets to play their favourite video game, you could have a whiteboard set up with a schedule listed on it: for example, “after you come home from school, you can have a snack, then we take your brother to soccer, then you can play your video game”.
Allow for practice in low-stress environments
Once a child has been taught a social skill, it is important to provide them with multiple opportunities for practicing them. To minimise any stress and maximise comfort, find low-pressure situations in which to practice and introduce new social scenarios. Consider activities such as role-playing games or visiting parks and other locations where there are typically less people or quieter environments.
The Social Express program offered by Sonic Learning offers social training in a low-stress environment, presented as animated lessons in a ‘Choose Your Own Adventure’ format.
One of the most important components for successful training of social skills for those with autism is parent caregiver involvement.
It is vital that parents and caregivers are actively engaged in the training process and work closely with teachers, therapists, and other professionals to ensure success. Parents should be involved in selecting appropriate goals, monitoring progress, providing reinforcement strategies, and helping their child know how to use the skills they have learned in real life. It’s also important for parents to have a clear understanding of their child’s needs and strengths when it comes to social interaction so that they can tailor support appropriately.
Regular communication between home and school is essential as it allows parents and carers to stay informed about skill development. This also helps them provide consistent help across different settings, meaning your child is more likely to improve, as they don’t have to learn different rules for school and home. Finally, involving family members or friends can further increase good outcomes for an individual on the autism spectrum; by having them practice target behaviors in a natural environment outside of therapy sessions or classrooms this helps them turn the theory into practice.
Social skills can be learned
Social skills are essential for individuals with autism to navigate their environment and interact with others successfully. Identifying areas for improvement in social skills and creating a plan to improve is crucial in helping individuals on the autism spectrum learn these skills.
There are several professionals and organisations that can help teach social skills, and there’s lots that parents can do to help as well. At Sonic Learning, we are committed to helping individuals with autism develop their social skills through our Social Express program. We encourage you to book a free consultation with us to learn more about how we can help your loved one with autism learn and grow socially.
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