How Does Autism Affect Social Skills + Teaching Social Skills

People with autism experience certain traits such as differences or difficulties with social skills. Although people with ASD have this in common, the challenges they have with social skills are unique to each person.

Communication, a vital aspect of social skills, often poses challenges for individuals with autism. Beyond the mere choice of words, effective communication includes various elements such as tone of voice, body language, facial expressions, and other nonverbal behaviors.

People with autism may struggle with social skills, such as participating in group settings, managing conversations, or making friends. Although people with ASD have difficulty with social skills, it doesn’t mean that their way of socializing is necessarily “wrong.”

Autism Acceptance & Personal Growth

People with autism should be accepted for who they are, but parents, therapists, and other supportive people can help the person with autism grow and develop in ways that support their overall well-being. It’s okay for any human being to continue to grow, develop and work on self-improvement, while also being accepted for who they are as a unique individual.

Considering Societal Expectations

It is important to understand that the difficulties faced by people with autism regarding social skills may not necessarily be challenging, except when viewed through the lens of societal expectations on typical social behaviors. For example, people with autism may struggle with making eye contact or small talk. This doesn’t mean there is anything wrong with that way of being. However, since society tends to accept the neurotypical way of socializing over neurodivergent ways of socializing, it can cause difficulties in the person’s life.

What is in the Best Interest of the Learner?

So, what should be done about this dilemma? It is important to consider the needs and wishes of the individual as well as what would be in their best interest when it comes to helping them to have a better quality of life. If learning to have some ability to engage in small talk will help the individual be more successful at their personal goals, then working on small talk may be something to address. On the other hand, if the person with autism can create a lifestyle in which small talk is not necessary for them to accomplish their goals, then it might not be a skill that should be as much of a priority. For instance, the person might work alone and therefore small talk isn’t necessary for success in their job.

It is also important to remember that we should not try to turn everyone into a certain type of personality. Some people, particularly those considered extroverts, may be more likely to engage in small talk with the cashier at the store, while others may have very limited conversation with the cashier. This is perfectly acceptable.

We should accept people for who they are but also encourage those we care about and those we are working with to develop skills that will help them be their best self and help support their quality of life.

Teaching Social Skills to People with Autism

Let’s explore some tips and strategies for teaching people with autism to improve their social skills.

Be a Role Model

While some individuals, both children and adults, with autism spectrum disorder face challenges when it comes to learning through observation of others’ behaviors, it is worth noting that individuals with autism acquire knowledge, at least to some extent, by observing and emulating the actions of those around them. It is important for parents, caregivers, therapists, and teachers to be a positive role model for the children (and adults) with autism in their lives. Acting in ways that show the kinds of social skills you want to see in your loved one with autism will greatly benefit their social skills development.

Provide Prompts

A prompt is something that is present that helps the learner be more likely to display the targeted behavior or complete a specific task. Prompts can be gestural, verbal, physical, textual (written), or visual.

To use prompts to teach someone with autism social skills, you can try to help them work on certain social skills by giving them the support that will help them practice the skill. For example, you might verbally coach a teenager on how to send a text or how to respond to a text when they are trying to make or maintain a friendship. You might use written scripts or reminders on how the person should respond in certain social situations.

Positive Reinforcement

It is important to help the person you are teaching to access positive reinforcement when they are working on developing a new skill. Positive reinforcement is when a particular event occurs following a behavior and then that behavior is more likely to occur again in the future. When it comes to social skills development for people with autism, it can be challenging for the teacher to find ways to reinforce the specific social skill that the learner is working on.

First, it is helpful to think about what will happen to the individual when they practice a specific skill or when they engage in a certain behavior. Will something good happen after they display the behavior or will something undesirable happen? If the learner is working on texting someone to maintain a friendship, do they experience a positive reply in response to their text or do they get a response that is unkind? In this scenario, it may be helpful to guide the learner in finding people to reach out to who are also likely to respond kindly in return.

Practice & Start Small

When teaching children (and adults) with autism to improve their social skills, it is recommended that they have plenty of opportunities to practice the skills. However, it is important to be mindful of the learner’s experience. They may experience extreme anxiety or other forms of discomfort in social situations. As mentioned earlier, be considerate of the individual person while also helping them to grow in ways that are in their best interest.

To approach social skills in this way, start small. This means that the teacher should gently and compassionately encourage the learner to take small actions toward the targeted skills. Instead of being forced to be in an unstructured group setting for three hours, it would be better for the learner to be in a structured group setting for half an hour when the targeted skill is to participate and feel more comfortable in group situations.

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