Tips for Helping Kids with Autism Improve their Social Skills3/2/2019 By Samantha Davis, BCBA
Appropriate social skills are extremely important for functioning in everyday life. From establishing and maintaining relationships to keeping a job, and even asking for help finding something at the grocery store, we’re almost constantly interacting with other people. Many children and adolescents with autism struggle to develop these critical social skills.
So, what are some things you can do to help your child or teen with autism learn and improve their social skills?
1. Have a real talk about the importance of social skills.
Discuss why they are important, and how working on social skills can help them get what they want in everyday life. Point out how making eye contact or acknowledging someone’s greeting will help them in the future. The importance of social cues and responses may seem obvious to neurotypical individuals, but they may not be that obvious to someone with autism, which is why it is important to start with a conversation about them.
2. Model and role-play scenarios.
Children and teens with autism can learn a lot from watching how others interact. YouTube is a great resource for videos demonstrating and breaking down fundamental social skills. Scenarios and social stories describing what to do in social situations can also be found on websites, such as teacherspayteachers.com. Even Pinterest has great role play scenarios and social stories.
Use these resources to find videos or stories that demonstrate what to do in the situations your child is working on and watch or read them with your child and then talk through the different parts of the interaction. Here’s an example of a simple graphic oriented toward middle schoolers:
3. Point out what other people are interested in.
Children and teens with autism typically have a difficult time seeing outside what they are interested in. They may really want to develop friendships, but lack the ability to connect with others, especially if they don’t share the same interests.
It is important to be able to identify what others are interested in to be able to initiate and continue a two-way conversation. So, practice helping your child with autism identify what others may be interested in by starting a conversation in a very natural way and, then, when a topic has emerged, stop and ask your child, “What do you think I am interested in?” It may be a bit awkward for you, but teaching them to listen and identify topics will go a long way in developing their conversational skills.
4. Take small steps and reinforce progress.
When dealing with a topic as broad as social skills, it is important to focus on just a few things at a time, such as initiating and/or responding to greetings or answering questions when asked. When working on these skills with your child, try to only use gestures or facial expressions to prompt the appropriate response or action. For example, when practicing responding to greetings, try only waving to your child to prompt him or her to say “hello” back.
It’s also very important to reinforce each success. You can do this with verbal praise, such as “good job” or “thank you for responding to me.” You can also give them a high five, a hug or an item that they enjoy playing with. Whichever way you let your child know you like what they did, do that every time they interact with you or someone else appropriately.