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

Teaching Socials Skills to Children with Autism

Interventions and strategies for children with autism should include those targeting social skills instruction as this has been identified as one of the core deficit areas of autism spectrum disorders. One such intervention is the Social Skills Training program that focuses on practicing social skills in the natural group setting to promote generalization.

One of the core features of autism is the inability to engage in social reciprocity with peers and others in social contexts. Despite intact cognitive and language ability, deficiencies in social understanding remain constant in all children with autism illustrating the importance of interventions that focus on building social skills. Without intervention strategies aimed at improving social skills, children with autism spectrum disorders will incur direct and indirect consequences such as social criticism and isolation. Additionally, there is evidence that suggests that children with autism that display social skill deficits in youth can have a difficult time with academics and occupational achievement (Howlin & Goode, 1998). Therefore, it is imperative that strategies and interventions for autism including social skills training (SST) are implemented in school programs to help teach specific skills that can be applicable for the long-term development of children with autism spectrum disorders.

Many people with autism spectrum disorders do not show a lack of social interest, but do demonstrate significant impairments in their social skills that contribute to their social withdrawal. Social skills that prove to be difficult for children with autism are impairments in social pragmatics and speech/language difficulties. Pragmatic skills include turn taking in conversations and the capability of taking the listener’s viewpoint. Poor speech proficiencies may include tendency to obsess on certain topics, difficulties understanding the topic being discussed, and interpreting non-literal language (White et al., 2006). With these social skills deficits, basic interactions on a daily basis prove to be stressful for children with autism causing them to withdraw from engaging with the social world around them. One way the students cope with the anxiety is to socially isolate themselves and shy away from opportunities to interact with peers and adults.

Autism interventions that focus on using applied behavioral analysis (ABA) foundations show high rates of success when it comes to improving functional communication skills, while simultaneously minimizing problematic behaviors. However, specific social skills interventions have not received as much focus in the literature about behavioral intervention for autism. Therefore, it is especially important that researchers continue to explore multiple intervention programs that place a large emphasis on teaching children with autism social skills because it continues to be a major deficit area for all levels of functioning.

One training program that has shown recent success in terms of teaching children with autism is Social Skills Training (SST). Social Skills Training provides explicit training in group formats and is necessary to help guide and develop their social skills, so that they understand the informal social rules and norms that come natural to their typically developing peers. Social skills training (SST) is one type of behavior intervention strategy that focuses on teaching specific skills such as maintaining eye contact and beginning conversations with peers. All of these skills are taught through specific behavioral and learning techniques. SST is one of the most effective early intervention strategies for teaching children with autism social skills because it allows for skills to be practiced in natural group settings, which promote interactions with other peers (White et al., 2006).

Several intervention strategy components of SST have shown promise in teaching social skills to children with autism. In order to increase the social motivation for children with autism spectrum disorders, it is important that instructor’s foster self-awareness and self-esteem; develop a nurturing and fun environment where learning can be optimal; introduce new skills with previously mastered skills at a steady pace; and start with simple easily learned skills to decrease feelings of frustration or failure. Another goal for teaching social skills to children with autism is increasing the frequency of social initiations. Some autism intervention strategies to develop these skills include making social rules clear and concrete, model age-appropriate initiation strategies, use natural reinforcement for social initiations (e.g., follows child’s interest for conversation topics), and teach minimal social “scripts” for universal situations.

In addition to increasing social motivation and initiations, autism interventions should focus on improving appropriate social responding. Strategies include teaching social response scripts by using modeling and role playing to teach these specific skills. Also, it is important to reinforce response attempts, which proves to be difficult for children with autism in general. While improving appropriate responses, autism interventions should focus on reducing interfering behaviors by making teaching predictable and structured to avoid confusion and anxiety of the unknown. Different types of behavior reinforcement should be used to reward positive behavior. Positive social behavior can be tracked using behavior charts such as stars or stickers to illustrate the appropriate behavior. Lastly, it is important to review socially appropriate behaviors as a group to include repetition in a socially interactive way.

Finally, it is important that social skills are learned and understood well enough by the students with autism to generalize them to outside situations beyond the classroom setting. Therefore, to promote skill generalization, autism interventions should focus on orchestrating peer involvement by prompting children to engage and initiate social interactions with peers. Multiple trainers and individuals should work with each individual child to practice new skills learned. Involving outside people such as parents, family, and other classrooms to promote different interactions can easily support this. Furthermore, field trips can help provide natural and safe settings to practice social skills outside of the classroom. Lastly, autism intervention sessions should be used to practice skills such as assigning homework tasks to increase repetition of training and ensure long-lasting learning.