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Teaching Social Skills to Children with Autism

One of the core challenges faced by people with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is difficulty with social skills. This can include trouble reading social cues, understanding the emotions of others, and responding appropriately to peers. Often, difficulty with social skills becomes more apparent when children enter school. There are many strategies that can help teach social skills to children, including the following:

Teaching social rules. Often, children with ASD have difficulty noticing and imitating the behavior of others around them. This leads to difficulty understanding social rules and responding to the behavior of others. Many social rules need to be explicitly taught by breaking down social situations and providing children with “rules” on how to respond, particularly with skills that are more abstract.

For example, the concept of personal space may be vague to a child with autism. They may not understand how close to stand to others. Providing a rule, such as “you must stand two steps away from your friends while you are talking” can help to make the concept more explicit.

Providing scripts. Children with autism may benefit from being taught simple scripts that can be used in social situations. This is a way of giving a child words or phrases that may be helpful. Social scripts may be written down or can be taught to a child through imitation. For example, a child who has difficulty losing a game may be taught alternative social responses such as, “good game,” “Maybe I’ll win next time.”

An example of a social script can be found below.

Public and Private Spaces-Many children with ASD have trouble differentiating between public and private spaces, and may engage in inappropriate behavior in public, such as picking their nose, putting their hands in their pants, etc. Over time, this behavior may become socially isolating, and may prevent other children from seeking out a child with ASD. It may be helpful to teach your child the difference between a public and private space, and the behaviors that are acceptable in each location.

Social Stories/Scripts- A social story is a short story that breaks down social situations, and provides information, guidance, and instruction for specific activities. These stories/scripts can be reviewed regularly and used as a way to teach individuals with ASD about social situations. Social stories can be personalized for each child and should include pictures when needed. Social stories can be used to teach concepts such as going to a birthday party, taking turns with friends, and participating in extracurricular sports. More information on how to write a social story can be found here,

Working with your Child’s school team- It may be important for your child to have social goals included on their Individualized Education Plan (IEP). Your child’s school team will be responsible for making sure that these goals are being taught in the classroom and in more social settings (e.g., recess). Often, it may be helpful for your child’s team to identify a few specific peers in the classroom to help practice social goals.

Practice- Regardless of the strategies that are put in place, the most important thing to remember when teaching social skills is practice. Practice should take place with many different people in different settings to help a child feel more comfortable in difficult social situations. Social skills groups are often a helpful way for many children with similar interests working on the same goals to practice together in a supported environment.

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