Autism is a developmental disorder thought to originate from neural differences. Children with autism frequently show restricted interests, repetitive behaviors, challenges in paying attention, moving and learning, and difficulties with interaction, communication and social skills.
Social dysfunction is a core characteristic of autism, with responses ranging from avoiding social interactions altogether to dominating social interactions. This social inattention is one of the disorder’s principal identifiers.
What Are Social Skills?
Essential social skills straddle four broad categories:
- Non-verbal: Non-verbal cues include facial expressions and body movements that communicate information in addition to spoken words. Frowns, smiles, and grimaces can express anger, surprise, sadness, happiness, disgust and fear, regardless of verbal communication. In addition, body movements – arm and hand gestures, posture and stance can convey feelings and attitudes.
Other forms of non-verbal communication include eye contact, touch, physical space perception, and tone of voice.
- Verbal: These skills include active listening and asking questions, including open-ended questions. In addition, verbal ability relies on non-verbal skills, such as the faculty to identify and react to non-verbal clues. These non-verbal communication cues include facial expressions, body language and environmental cues.
- Empathetic: Empathy, putting yourself ‘in another’s shoes’ to understand their point of view, emotions and challenges, is fundamental to all social skills. Most social connections rely on empathy and compassion, including making good social decisions and creating and building lasting relationships.
- Written social skills: This skill set involves written communication abilities: being able to transfer facts, thoughts, and ideas clearly and understandably in writing.
Social skills tend to be goal-oriented and context-based, meaning how skills are applied on where, when and with whom interactions occur.
However, it’s not uncommon for children living with autism to struggle with most or all of these skills, leaving them vulnerable, whether at school, college, or with family or peer groups. Lacking familiarity and comfort with any of these skills can leave children with autism feeling overwhelmed, unable to learn and develop effectively or enjoy warm and supportive social connections.
Why Do Children With Autism Struggle With Social Skills?
Difficulty learning social skills is rooted in the fundamentals of autism spectrum disorder: delays in acquiring verbal skills, challenges in reading non-verbal and social cues, obsessive, repetitive behaviors, and rigid routines making it harder for them to fit in.
Older children diagnosed as living with autism, particularly, can take longer to learn and develop these abilities, thanks to needing to unlearn old, less healthy habits and replace these with socially appropriate behaviors.
Learning Social Skills
Social skills are typically learnt naturally during social interaction. However, for children living with autism, knowing these skills are essential, what they are, and when to use them isn’t enough.
A genuine understanding of the skills and how they can benefit can help children living with autism to learn, build cognitive control over, and authentically develop and apply these essential social skills in daily life.
The Benefits of Good Social Skills
Children living with autism often can’t recognize or are slower to pick up on social cues, making them seem socially awkward, uncaring and inconsiderate.
Instead, learning and genuinely understanding adequate social skills can help children living with autism to:
- Understand acceptable behavior in different social situations.
- Make and keep new friends.
- Find and enjoy new interests and hobbies.
- Learn from the people around them.
Access to and control over reliable social skills may also positively influence emotional and mental health, helping children living with autism express their feelings in a more socially acceptable way and communicate their thoughts and emotions more effectively.
This self-management can help reduce frustration and enhance confidence, self-esteem, social success and quality of life, especially by focusing on essential skills.
Essential Social Skills to Teach Children Living With Autism
Crucial social skills for children with autism include:
- Play: These sharing skills include patience, understanding and fairness, and respecting another child’s or adult’s needs. Play skills are usually demonstrated through sharing toys and having the self-control to take turns in playing.
- Conversation: This ability includes understanding when to talk and when to listen, what and what not to talk about in social situations, and how to manage body language and eye contact.
- Emotional: Learning to manage emotions is vital in social and home settings. Emotional skills include identifying, understanding, expressing and managing strong feelings.
- Problem-solving: Play, conversation and emotional skills all rely on making appropriate decisions, so learning how to problem solve can significantly help children with autism manage and resolve conflict and other choice situations in social settings.
Social skills include listening, sharing, acceptable manners and cooperation skills. Learning these behaviors can help children living with autism set goals and boundaries, understand teamwork, show respect, appear more approachable, and make and maintain relationships.
Respecting personal space and privacy, using appropriate eye contact, and following directions also increase learning ability, boost self-esteem, and enhance communication effectiveness.
In addition, good social skills help children with autism build independence, lead meaningful and productive social and work lives, contribute positively to society, and take on leadership roles.
Learning these social skills can be complex.
However, appropriate techniques such as Applied Behavioral Analysis (ABA) therapy is an effective and widely-used therapy for helping children living with autism.
How Can ABA Therapy for Children Living With Autism Improve Their Social Skills?
ABA therapy is a tried and tested approach based on behavioral and learning science. It helps users understand what drives behavior, how it’s affected by environmental factors, and how learning happens.
The customizable therapy then turns this deeper understanding into real situations to reduce harmful habits and promote helpful behaviors, including: improving language and communication skills.
- Boosting attention, focus, memory, and social and academic skills.
- Minimizing challenging behaviors.
- Increasing play and motor skills.
- Encouraging self-care.
This flexible and person-first therapy uses numerous techniques, applies various situations and locations, and offers individual or group therapy formats.
One of the therapy’s main strategies is focusing on positive reinforcement to encourage positive change over time. This approach involves initial evaluation, planning, goal setting, and ongoing progress assessment for dynamic, individual, family and milieu-specific assistance.
First, goals are developed and adjusted for age and ability. Skills are then broken down into small, practical steps, with each stage introduced and taught in turn. Parents and caregivers, too, are provided with knowledge and skills to continue learning at home.
Additional Strategies for Teaching and Developing Social Skills
Beyond social skills training and positive praise and reinforcement for children living with autism, additional beneficial activities include games, visual supports, video modeling and role-playing:
- Playing games: Game playing, including video games, helps develop motor skills, essential problem-solving skills, learning from mistakes, and encourages persistence in the face of loss or challenge. Games also promote a flexible attitude, resilience and adaptability.
- Visual supports: Visual aids, whether pictures, checklists, prompt cards, or words, can help children living with autism learn, remember and develop social skills and their context, reminding them what they already know or introducing new concepts.
- Video modeling: This technique involves a video of the skill modeled by a child living with autism, another child or an adult. Video modeling is an effective method of demonstrating social skills and can be reviewed as a reminder.
- Role-playing: This interactive activity helps familiarize children with appropriate behavior, language and emotional tone during various social situations. Role-playing can provide guidance and direction and, importantly, offer an opportunity to practice talking and interacting, with immediate feedback and a chance to try again using a different approach.
Learning a robust set of social skills for children living with autism is thus an accessible, achievable and worthwhile goal.
It may take some time, especially in older children diagnosed later, but with patience, understanding and compassion, combined with appropriate and effective techniques such as ABA therapy, social comfort, control, and success are possible.