Social skills and autism spectrum disorder (ASD)

Social skills will help your child with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) know how to act in different social situations – from talking to her grandparents when they visit to playing with friends at school.

Social skills can help your child make friends, learn from others and develop hobbies and interests. They can also help with family relationships and give your child a sense of belonging.

And good social skills can improve your child’s mental health and overall quality of life.

What social skills does your child with autism spectrum disorder need?

It’s good for your child with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) to develop:

  • play skills – for example, taking turns in a game or sharing a toy
  • conversation skills – for example, choosing what to talk about or what body language to use
  • emotional skills – for example, managing emotions and understanding how others feel
  • problem-solving skills – for example, dealing with conflict or making decisions in a social situation.

Strategies for developing social skills

It isn’t easy for children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) to learn social skills, but you can use the strategies below to help your child.

Practising play
Practise play skills with your child by using toys to act out a scene. For example, you could hug a teddy, then feed teddy and put it to bed, have a tea party with a few teddies, or create a story using a play set like a farm, petrol station or airport.

Playing games together helps your child practise turn-taking, coping with winning and losing, and following rules. Younger children might like movement games like red light/green light, Simon says, hide-and-seek or tag. Or you could just roll, bounce or kick a toy or ball between you. Older children might like to play table games like Connect Four, Jenga or card games.

Prompting your child to take turns and follow rules will help him learn. Praising him for this behaviour also helps. For example, you can say ‘My turn’ and ‘Your turn’. When your child lets you have a turn or follows a rule, you could say ‘Good taking turns’ or ‘Well done for saying Uno!’

Practising a skill in different play situations will help your child learn to use the skill more broadly. For example, you can practise taking turns while kicking a ball to one another, feeding a teddy, putting pieces of a puzzle together, or playing a table game like Connect Four.

Role-playing
Role-play can help your child learn and practise the skills she needs to play with others. For example, before another child comes to visit, you and your child could:

  • do a role-play where your child suggests what to play with her friend
  • play the games that your child and her friend might play.

Practise talking about things like what your child has watched on TV or what he did on the weekend.

For older children you could also try setting up situations that involve a social problem – for example, having one piece of cake left over for two people. Then you could role-play possible solutions, like both people sharing the cake. Other social problems could include not liking what has been cooked for dinner, not having a turn on the computer, or losing a brother’s toy.

Video-modelling
Try taking videos of the social skills you want to teach. For example, you can teach turn-taking by videoing people taking turns playing a game. Pause the video and say things like ‘His turn’, ‘Her turn’. After watching the video, try playing the same game with your child and saying ‘My turn’, ‘Your turn’.

You can teach emotions by videoing people in social situations and asking your child questions about how she thinks the people feel. Pause the video and point out the tone of voice, facial expression and body cues that show how the person on the video might be feeling. You could do the same with a DVD or TV program.

You can also use this strategy to help your child feel more comfortable in new and difficult social situations. For example, before you go to the hairdressers you could video the building and what your child will see when he arrives, so he knows what to expect.

Social Stories™
Social Stories™ can help with explaining social rules. For example, you could use a Social Story to explain why it’s important to play with others.

Visual prompts
Visual prompts might help your child learn new skills or remember social skills she has already learned. Depending on your child’s learning needs, visual prompts might be pictures, words, checklists or prompt cards.

For example, you could use words or pictures as prompts for different conversation topics, like a picture of a cat to remind your child to talk to his grandparents about their cat.

Or you could use picture prompts to help your child learn how to play a particular game. For example, pictures could represent different steps in a restaurant play sequence –  take the order, cook the food, serve the food, clear the table, pay the bill.

Social skills training
Social skills training can help your child develop social skills in a structured way. For example, Emotion-based Social Skills Training (EBSST) is a program that teaches emotions and social skills in individual or group therapy sessions. The Program for the Education and Enrichment of Relational Skills (PEERS®) is a social skills program for young children who have difficulty with friendships and interacting with peers.

You might be able to get social skills training through your child’s preschool or school or in sessions with a psychologist, speech pathologist, occupational therapist or other health professional.

Using social skills in different situations

Children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) can find it hard to use social skills they’ve learned in other situations. For example, your child might be able to share her pencils at home with her sister but not at school with her classmates.

To help your child use skills at school, talk to your child’s teacher to make sure you’re both using the same prompts for your child. It also helps to practise the same social skills in lots of different situations – for example, sharing pencils with a friend who visits, or sharing pencils with a sibling at a café.

Socialising with other children

It can be tricky to balance the time your child spends socialising with children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) with the time he spends with typically developing children.

Typically developing children can be great role models who encourage good social skills in your child with ASD. On the other hand, if your child shares abilities and interests with other children with ASD, this can give your child good social relationships and a sense of belonging.

Who your child socialises with depends on how well your child relates to other children, how well other children relate to her, and what your child can learn from others.

And whoever your child socialises with, it’s important that his relationships are based on acceptance and understanding.

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