Children playing

The catch-all characteristic of autism is limited social skills and social interactions. Autism Spectrum Disorder is a behavioral disorder that affects and impairs social and communication skills, and presents with restricted or repetitive behaviors. Autism social skills seem to go hand in hand, and if you’re a parent of a child on the spectrum, you likely have felt the impact that this can have on a child’s life and the family dynamic. 

So how do we improve autism social skills?

Social development skills: What are the basic social skills?

Social development skills are like building blocks. The concept is so abstract and vast, that it takes quite a bit of dedication to break everything down and help it develop. For instance, consider the requirements for a social interaction.

Below are skills required to engage socially:

  • Knowing what people are saying to you
  • Knowing what the words mean in the context they’re in
  • Understanding what body language is
  • Applying the understanding of body language to your communicative partner
  • Attending to a communicative partner (being able to see, hear, and pay attention to them regardless of what’s going on around you)
  • Understanding socially accepted behavior for the context (if someone is talking about something sad, you shouldn’t laugh)
  • Understanding socially accepted behavior for your age range 
  • Being able to receive information, and construct a response
  • Actually being able to say the response 
  • Waiting the appropriate amount of time before responding

This isn’t even an exhaustive list. It’s not as easy as putting a child with peers and having them go for it. Most of the time, social cues for autism are completely different.

When a child does not typically learn by observing others (which is a very common characteristic of autism), social conventions are really difficult. It’s hard to learn the nuances of social interaction and social scenarios for children with autism can be inherently overwhelming. Not only do these extensive skills take time to learn, but there’s the added factor that children with autism also tend to struggle with communication.

How to improve social skills?

Teaching social skills to autistic children takes creating the building blocks, then assuring that we systematically continue to build skills on to one another.

Step 1: Communication

We have to ensure that a child has a viable way of communicating wants and needs to familiar people. 

By building communication, we are slowly starting to also increase the child’s social skills. By teaching a child that creating personal relationships typically results in needs or wants being met, we’re not only teaching the child that it’s worth the effort to communicate, but we’re also showing them that other people can be cool. They can give us things that we ask for. They can provide hugs and high-fives when we do something awesome. 

These are critical first steps in improving peer interactions because we’re showing that socialization has benefits. Otherwise, toys, preferred items, videos, and games seem way more appealing. We don’t have to work too hard to enjoy them, so they tend to take precedence over socialization for kiddos with autism spectrum disorders.

Step 2: Build social scenarios for autism

After a trusty form of communication is established, then we can start creating some social scenarios for autism

We begin integrating peers or familiar adults into social communication exchanges (playing with preferred games or items together). In doing this, we not only start to teach a child how to use the communication system they’ve built, but also we’re teaching them that social play can, at times, be even more fun than isolated play. 

Other people being involved allows us to play with toys and games in a way that we can’t on our own. 

Step 3: Find the right tools

But what about all those other skills that are way more abstract? Like learning social context, social cues, and body language? There are plenty of tools that can greatly help a child with autism learn these targeted skills. 

There are apps that practice social skills interventions – so a child learns how to appropriately respond to statements and questions in a virtual practice space. It’s always easier to learn tougher skills in a format that you’re comfortable with, so that way when it’s time to actually use them in real life, you’ve had plenty of practice. 

Having an app that teaches social skills can be a life savior, believe me

Check out the best social skills apps for children with autism here.

Step 4: Implement social stories

These are basic story books written about topics to help teach ideas that may be a little hard to learn through experience. 

For example, my son had a difficult time with tone of voice, and learning when the shouting was not the best option for communicating a need. I created a social story that used pictures of him in certain social settings that he was familiar with, and used a storybook approach to teach him when raising his voice was appropriate, and when it was more appropriate to use a quieter tone. 

Step 5: Include visual support

Finally, visual supports can be extremely helpful during social skills training. 

These can come in so many different formats, but anything that a child can look at as a reference would qualify as visual support. You see these all the time, even in classrooms that are mainstream education classrooms. Posters that help children remember concepts, behavior charts, and classroom rules, all of these are visual supports. 

A child with autism may use a picture communication system. I have used visuals while I teach social skills to help children understand when a conversation was still happening so they would remember to continue responding. These non-invasive tools help children to remember skills they’ve learned and cue their appropriate use in the natural environment.

Children playing

Autism and social skills: My recommendations

Because social skills deficits are so wide and vast, and our social conventions change so much – I highly recommend that children with limited communication and social skills get continued support that grows with them as they grow.

For my son, ABA therapy was very helpful to develop social skills. Other forms of support are also helpful. What helps the most is when parents are equipped with the resources to be able to help their children foster communication and social skills at home. 

These are skills that truly shine when they can be nurtured in the environment where they are the most natural. ABA, Speech, and occupational therapy are excellent tools, and they no doubt help teach the foundations needed. 

Parent involvement, however, is by far the most critical part of a child’s social development. I saw this first hand with my own child. I see it consistently with children and families I work with. A child learns to use a communication device to make simple requests with their therapist. The therapist excitedly congratulates the child and the parent is happy to see such progress – but at home, the device may not even leave the backpack. 

The child learns new skills in very controlled environments, and the parents still have a tough time with communication in the home. 

What helped my son go from non-verbal at 6 years old to the host of his very own YouTube channel with a vocabulary that even exceeds mine was the fact that he learned to apply what he learned in the home and in the classroom. I sat in every session he had, learned how to implement what they were doing, and continued the learning process at home. 

Not every parent can sit in every therapy session, and that’s okay. This is why I love being able to provide these skills to parents. All parents. The parents who work insane hours, the parents who have 3 other children running around the house. The parents who have a knack for creating visuals and the parents who didn’t know they even had a nurturing bone in their body. 

Social skill development depends entirely on the child, and no one knows your child as you do. That’s why I offer free resources and consultations on my website! Visit Bloom Health to get everything you need to start your journey through autism social skills!

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