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Knowledge Center
Providing the highest quality information and resources about autism spectrum disorders.

Autism and Social Skills

Social cognitive deficits are one of the hallmark symptoms of children with autism. Even high-functioning children with asperger disorder who have high intelligence and verbal abilities show major impairments when it comes to peer interactions and social skills for students with autism. Individuals with autism spectrum disorders often do not understand what appropriate social behavior for specific situations. Furthermore, they may not comprehend social norms and rules that underlie conversation that are implicitly understood by others. Lastly, initiating topics for conversations proves to be very difficult for those with autism when trying to engage with others in a social context.

Despite the recognition of social impairments as a main feature of autism, treatment programs for improving social skills are not as prominent as needed. Even though most intervention programs for autism are not focused on building social skills, there are fundamental ingredients that programs need to incorporate for successful improvement in the social understanding of students with spectrum disorders.

When designing a program that aims to teach children with autism social skills, it is important to understand that they tend to be concrete and literal. Therefore, transforming abstract concepts into concrete terms will make it easier for them to process the whole message. For example, concepts such as friendship, feelings, and thoughts are especially difficult to understand, so the concepts must be concretely defined and the child needs to be taught to recognize and differentiate it from other behaviors. One way to teach social rules is to use visual-based instruction that specifically informs individuals with autism what to do in social situations. For example, pictures are useful when clarifying definitions and concepts especially when teaching eye contact. A picture of an arrow has been used to serve as a visual cue when children with ASD need to be reminded to look at the person with whom he or she is conversing.

In addition to making abstract concepts more concrete, when teaching children with autism social skills, structure and predictability are useful to ease the anxiety associated with transitioning between activities. All social situations involve transitions from one topic to another and it is important to ease the stress that can be associated with the unknown. This can be done during group instruction specifically by maintaining a consistent opening, lesson, and closing format regardless of the topic that is scheduled. This allows for an element of predictability to group rituals, such as an opening song routine that helps the student know what to expect in the activity thus easing any apprehension they may experience. Classrooms can also use picture schedules or written lists to help show students what will be taking place in the upcoming day so that transitions are known ahead of time. Lastly, having planned and predictable transition routines from one task to another allows students to focus on the concrete tasks instead of the anxiety associated with transitions.

Children with autism should have multiple and diverse learning opportunities for them to be engaged in when learning social skills. This entails using activities that target areas of strength and weakness, multiple areas of development such as reading, language, art, music, and various sensory tools to support students in wanting to interact together. Along with these diverse activities, they should be other-focused activities. This means that instead of creating music or art projects for themselves, they should make something for a peer to create a social interaction that doesn’t naturally occur for children with autism. By repeating and requiring social opportunities and practice, cooperation and partnership, we create a climate that focuses on teaching social skills through multiple avenues and in a variety of contexts.