Social skills are one of the most important skill areas that children can develop. It is important for many reasons. Social skills are the foundation of how we interact with others, how we develop and maintain relationships, and how we engage in our community. Social skills strongly affect our well-being, our mood, and our mental health.
Most children with autism share a common trait. They struggle in the area of social skills in some way. For instance, they might prefer not to engage in small talk even though most other people find that small talk is a common activity when you are around other people such as when checking out at a grocery store or when near peers on the playground.
Parents, educators, and therapists can help their children with autism be their best selves and have greater success in school, in their future work life, and in relationships by supporting their child to develop and improve social skills in ways that are appropriate and suitable for them.
Some children with autism are content and don’t feel the desire to make friends or maybe they only have one or two close relationships and that is completely okay. Other children would like to make friends and having friendships would improve their mental health and overall well-being.
We’ll offer some recommendations for how you can support your child’s social skills development; however, remember to consider your child’s specific needs, abilities, and who your child is as an individual. Be sure not to pressure your child into ‘being like everyone else’ or to get them to ‘fit in’ in ways that aren’t aligned with their unique needs and what is in their best interest.
Recommendations for Encouraging Social Skills Development in Children with Autism
Consider the following recommendations for helping your child with autism develop skills related to social interactions and relationships. Individualize the recommendations to suit your child’s needs, abilities, and personality.
Assess Your Child’s Social Skills
First, be sure to assess your child’s needs. What goals should your child work on in the area of social skills? Try to observe your child’s behavior in situations where your child is or could be interacting with others. Take note of how your child interacts with others. How do they respond to what other people say and do? Do they initiate conversations or ask for help when they need it? What could your child get better at? Over the course of a few days or weeks, write down specific goals that you’d like your child to work on.
Reinforce Behavior Related to Specific Social Skills
After you have identified the specific social skills that your child should continue to develop, plan for how you will use positive reinforcement to get your child to engage in this type of behavior more often. Let’s consider an example. If your child should work on asking for help when they are having trouble or when they need assistance with something, find instances of your child asking for help (if they show this behavior occasionally or even if you have provided a prompt to help your child demonstrate the behavior) and praise them for asking for help. You can say, “Thanks for asking for help.”
This is especially important if you are trying to minimize problematic behavior that your child might show when they do need help, but they have a tantrum or give up on the activity instead of actually asking for the help they need. You can also provide reinforcement by giving tokens that they can use to redeem certain rewards.
Provide Prompts as Needed
Practicing social skills can be very overwhelming especially when you feel uncomfortable or anxious about interacting with others or even when a particular social skill is difficult for you. Many social skills can be challenging or even stressful even if the person wants to get better at them. For instance, a child having to tell a police officer, or another person of authority, their parent’s name and phone number is another social skill that can be difficult. If a child were to get lost and need to demonstrate this social-communication skill, the stress of the event might make it even more difficult.
To help your child develop social skills and to help them do this in a way that keeps the stress and anxiety low, provide as many prompts as you need to help your child practice the social skill. A prompt means you help them in certain ways. For instance, you could give your child a script to follow, a picture image that represents the skill (like a “help” picture icon), and so on.
Fade the use of prompts slowly and compassionately over time as your child gets better at using the social skill.
A Few More Tips to Develop Social Skills in Children with Autism
A few more strategies and tips you can use to encourage social skill development in your child include the following:
- Model appropriate social skills in the way you interact with your child and with others.
- Role-play specific situations that your child will experience including those that involve the specific goals your child is working on.
- Use visuals as appropriate for specific social skills.
- Make social situations more structured, especially if your child gets anxious or overwhelmed in social situations that don’t tend to have an organized, purposeful format.
- Teach empathy. Teach your child about identifying their own and others’ emotions.