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Social Skills Training for Autism

Individuals with autism do not respond properly to social situations without some type of training. While being non-verbal results in a lack of social skills, those with high-functioning autism or Asperger Syndrome, and good vocabularies, also have social-communication difficulties. Social problems span across the entire autism spectrum.

The earlier autistic children learn to understand what is going on, and respond appropriately, the more successful they will be in reaching their full potential. However, it is never too late to begin acquiring these essential tools. Many autistic adults benefit from social skills training and therapies, and do exceptionally well when self-motivated to improve.

What are Social Skills?


Social Play Skills with Peers

When defining social skills, communicating through language often comes to mind. While people do talk to communicate, social tools also enable learning and growth through asking questions, getting help, expanding interests, and fulfilling needs. They also include how to get along with others, make friends, understand emotions, and interact appropriately. A few of these skills are:

  • taking turns or following directions
  • table manners and meal conversations
  • interrupting others appropriately
  • working with others or sharing
  • not monopolizing the conversation
  • making good eye contact
  • ordering at a restaurant
  • buying something at the store
  • using the telephone
  • handling conflict; ability to compromise
  • disagreeing appropriately
  • accepting when someone says “no”
  • initiate and participate in small talk
  • asking for directions or other help
  • learning basic social rules, like respect for personal space
  • understanding facial expressions, gestures, and voice tone
  • appropriate response to teasing, bullying, or making mistakes
  • using self control, like dealing with anger or frustration
  • not ignoring the feelings of others

Related: Speech-Language Therapy for Autistic Children

Poor social skills will not go away on their own. In fact, they can grow worse as children with autism approach adolescence. Anxiety, frustration, and the need for acceptance and support interfere with the demanding social aspects of a teen’s life. As a child grows older, she becomes more aware of her disability and the differences between herself and others. She can feel even more alone and self-conscious.

Effective Social Skills Programs

An effective social skills program begins with basic skills in a safe environment, and then later moves to more challenging difficulties. Treatment differs depending on the person’s social problems and the type of specialist performing the sessions. While anyone with a background in child development and psychology can teach social skills, it is wise to seek out those with experience in handling the complexities of autism.

Traditional psychologists can easily misinterpret motivations behind the words and actions of someone with autism. Also, the literalness with which autistic children and adults view the world complicates the process of learning the rules for social etiquette. Autistic people see little need for small talk, cannot understand abstract thought, and generally do not know how to behave in social situations. These types of deficiencies can interfere with creating or maintaining relationships.

Like all behavior analysis programs, a social skills teacher begins with observation and assessment. If working with a high functioning individual, however, the trainer may ask what the person wants to do first. The social instructor will then watch to see if that person has the necessary skills. For example, before someone can learn ways to deal with whatever triggers her anger, she must master techniques for staying calm.

An assessment tells the social coach which skills to work on, what strategies to use, and whether the person would do best in a group or individual therapy session. For those who are attentive or can be redirected, some coaches offer group therapy sessions. The advantage of group therapy is the practice the trainee receives relating to, and interacting with peers – something individual sessions cannot provide. However, many high-functioning people find themselves easily distracted by obsessions, are impulsive, or display a pseudo hyperactivity better dealt with on an individual basis.

After making a full assessment, the skills trainer breaks down the steps of a social activity or game into smaller pieces so he can clearly explain the social rules governing that behavior, and what is expected of the autistic individual. A psychologist attempting to teach how to engage in small talk might also seek to discover the process the person uses to understand abstract concepts. If the trainee thinks in pictures and visualizes nouns when participating in conversations, then specific teaching methods can use that strength.

Incidental Teaching

In addition to what an autistic child or adult can learn from professional classes, training also needs to be ongoing – continued at home, as well as in the classroom. The best way to do that is through a technique known as “incidental teaching.” This type of teaching takes advantage of learning opportunities found in the everyday situations of life.

Through incidental teaching, the instructor stays aware, and looks for teachable moments throughout the day where he can help the child or adult improve their social skills in a natural setting. The steps for an incidental teaching moment are always the same. Point out the social cue or rule, prompt an appropriate reaction or behavior, and then offer positive reinforcement for success.

For example, if the child is playing and someone accidentally bumps into her with a toy, and she gets upset about it (even though the other child apologized), the trainer can point out that since the offender said, “I’m sorry,” it was an accident. Since the word “accident” is an abstract concept, the skills coach could also point out a situation where the child did something accidently, to help her understand. The coach then offers the child an appropriate response, such as acknowledge the apology by saying, “okay,” and let it go. If the child accepts the trainer’s solution, praise or a reward is given.

Social Skills Training is Not Always the Best Choice

Since social skills do not come naturally to autistic individuals and abstract concepts are difficult to learn, social interaction can be stressful, even when qualified trainers use fun activities and games. Along with increased anxiety and additional sensory dysfunctions the sessions may provoke, parents should consider a child’s unsafe behaviors or patterns of aggression before placing that child, or even an adult, into this type of situation.

In addition, a trainer cannot guarantee that social problems will improve. While an effective instructor will teach what to do, and why, autistic children or adults may never be able to do a particular skill independently. Many people need additional behavioral management, or even medication, before they can begin to implement the skills they have learned into real life situations.

Related: Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) for Autism

While all autistic children should be taught basic social skills – like learning to accept the word “no” or how to take turns – those who do best with more complex issues such as small talk, asking for and following directions, or understanding facial expressions recognize they have deficits and want to overcome them. Due to the intense motivation required for success, most individuals who enter social skills training have high functioning autism, or Asperger Syndrome.

However, any autistic individual who desires to make friends, needs help responding appropriately to teasing or bullying, or just wants to participate in social activities like picking out her own school clothes and paying the cashier herself can benefit from a social skills program. While she might never reach the level of independence someone else might, what she does learn will help her feel more accepted and supported.

  • References
    • 1. Baker, Jed E. Social Skills Training for Children and Adolescents with Asperger Syndrome and Social Communication Problems. Shawnee Mission, KS: Autism Asperger Publishing Co, 2004. Print.
    • 2. Bashe, Patricia Romanowski and Barbara L. Kirby. The Oasis Guide to Asperger Syndrome: Advice, Support, Insight, and Inspiration. New York, NY: Crown Publishers, 2005. Print.
    • 3. White, Susan Williams. Social Skills Training for Children with Asperger Syndrome and High-Functioning Autism. New York, NY: The Guilford Press, 2011. Print.

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