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Autism and Social Skills: Helping Your Child Thrive

October 28, 2021

By ABA Psychological Services

What are Social Skills?

To understand the connection between social skills and autism, we need to start by identifying some of these skills.

For children, social skills begin to emerge and develop at a very young age. Soon after birth, an infant learns to orient towards their mother’s voice, and is then followed by interactions with familiar family and caregivers. These early milestones in a child’s life are crucial for laying the foundation of developing social skills.

Fast forward a few years, and we can see social skills emerge in the form of conversation and play. Some examples of social skills in conversation can include initiating and maintaining eye contact, the ability to ask and answer questions, and demonstrating appropriate body language. In play, social skills take the form of joint, or shared, attention, sharing toys, and the progression from parallel play to associate play. Typically, these play skills emerge by age 3, however, every child has different skill repertoires; as well as experiences that may affect the age that these skills manifest.

Social skills also cover emotional intelligence. We teach the ability to observe, identify and respond to different emotions displayed by others. For younger children, we may teach them first to identify their own emotions, and in what situations they feel that way. Next, we may ask them to identify the emotions of others based on facial cues, or body language. Finally, we may teach a child to make an empathetic statement or preform an action based on the emotional expression of others.

From interacting with classmates to taking a trip to the grocery store with their parents, social skills are what anchors children in the present. It helps them get in tune with themselves and the world around them in a way that promotes positive behaviors and contributes to improved mental health and a high-quality lifestyle.

For children with autism, social roadblocks can come in different forms. Some may struggle verbally expressing themselves, while others might have trouble reading non-verbal communication cues and experience sensory overload.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), other symptoms of Autism, that may hinder social skills can include:

  • Difficulties in imaginative play.
  • A disinterest in peers, and preference to play by themselves
  • Restricted interests, meaning if peers are not playing with that child’s preferred toys the child will not engage
  • Rigid thinking patterns, a need to follow certain routines that may not be changed, and difficulties with transitions.

Who can Teach Social Skills?

Teaching social skills, while facing the varied and complex deficits of Autism may be difficult to maneuver without expert help, which is why experts like Board-Certified Behavior Analysts (BCBA), Licensed Behavior Analysts (LBA), who practice Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) have become a great resource for many families.

These professionals typically offer in-home and clinic-based therapy, teaching them how to handle and adapt to different social situations. The goal is to make the child more at ease and less overwhelmed about engaging with others or having new experiences.

The ABA therapist works closely with your child, while the BCBA designs overarching programs and adjusts treatment plans to ensure long-lasting behavioral improvements.

Parents also play an important part in their child's progress. The BCBA and parents work together to identify goals to work on outside of their child’s services. The BCBA and the parent will discuss and create a procedure for the parent to implement with their child. This model of parent training has been proven to be successful in maintaining the gains and progress of their child.

Social Skills Activities for Autism

Social skills activities for children with autism rely on structured social interactions and visual aids to reinforce positive behaviors. Here’s a list of activities that help build your child’s social skills:

  1. Role-play.When done before social events, role-playing can help your child be more at ease in different situations. Practice finding solutions to possible scenarios such as having to share dessert or a toy with another child.
  2. Social skills training (SST).Examples include: initiating conversations, practicing appropriate eye contact and facial expressions, greetings, empathy, and assertiveness.
  3. Behavior Specific Praise.Children with Autism thrive on praise and will adapt their behaviors to receive more priase. When providing praise, be specific and describe the interaction or event. This way, the child identifies the action that lead to them receiving praise. Instead of simply stating, “Awesome work,” alternatively, you could say, “Good job for giving your brother a hug.”
  4. Practice play.Use toys to promote appropriate behaviors such as enacting a tea party with stuffed animals. Puzzles and card games like Uno are also effective games to work on social skills with those on the Autism Spectrum (E.g., turn taking, accepting losing).
  5. Social stories.These are stories that enable your child to reframe their social interaction in a positive light. A social story has a specific goal, is highly descriptive, and uses positive phrases such as “I like to brush my teeth after each meal. People brush their teeth to keep healthy. I can brush my teeth for 2 minutes.”
  6. Video-modeling.This is a helpful technique to showcase healthy interactions. point-of-view video modeling leverages a child’s perspective such as a video of a pair of hands completing a task.

Developing Social Skills With ABA-Based Therapy

With the right therapeutic support, children with autism can develop reliable social skills that will allow them to become thriving adults. At ABA Psychological Services, we have the experience and the tools to help your child reach behavioral and personal independence. Contact us today for clinical-based or in-home therapy that delivers results!

Interested in learning how a BCBA can help your child? Meet our team, browse our services and contact us when you’re ready to start a true partnership.

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