The future depends on what we do in the present. – Mahatma Gandhi
Social skills are increasingly important with age. What is acceptable behavior from a 4-year-old, is no longer acceptable from a 14-year-old. Start establishing appropriate behavior and habits earlier, rather than later, to avoid issues as your child gets older. For example, letting your child ride in a grocery cart when he’s 5 or 6 looks OK still (and keeps them from wandering off!) but if you don’t break that habit before too long, your 20-year-old, 200-pound son will still expect and demand to get in the grocery cart, even when he can’t fit in it. And if you think you get stares when your 6-year-old is in the cart, just wait.
What are social skills?
Social skills can be anything from taking turns, to not interrupting conversations, to not telling “too much” truth (telling an overweight person that they are “fat”), to conversational skills and to making and keeping friends, to name just a few. Kids with ASD don’t learn intrinsically or pick up on social cues, verbal or nonverbal, like typical peers do so they must be taught. The difference in behavior also becomes more visible when kids become teens. In the teen years, typical peers generally are less accepting of behaviors so ASD kids are often ostracized and bullied, making it harder for them to fit in, at a time in their lives when fitting in is at its most important.
Who provides training?
There is no formal education or certification for social skills trainers but they are usually taught by teachers, speech therapists, psychologists, counselors and parents. Regardless of who teaches the skill first, parents must also teach and reinforce these skills at home and in the community.
Social skills can be taught everywhere, but should be included in IEPs for the school staff, in the home and community with your family and with any other private therapists, and in group programs like summer camps, after-school clubs and standalone programs at places like Easter Seals or United Cerebral Palsy. Many local psychologists also run social skills groups for teens or they can refer you to one. You can also do a Google search for “social skills autism (your city, state)”. ESY (extended school year, aka summer school) is ideal to use for social skills training since most programs drop academics for the summer.
No matter how many people you have teaching your child social skills, unless it is being reinforced in everyday life, across all situations, they will not be effective. Parental involvement is crucial because no one else interacts with your child in all aspects of their life, except YOU. Others can start to learn from watching you. Be the example for siblings, aunts, grandparents, etc. and show them how to set the standard high for social skills. Social skills are a necessary part of developing self-esteem and can determine your child’s success in many aspects of life.
What tools are used to help in social skills training?
Single-themed narratives present social conventions to the child with ASD in the form of a brief story. For example, if the child has trouble on the swing set, a social story might explore this situation in detail, introducing the concepts of taking turns and asking a classmate to play. Ideally, the story is written from the first-person perspective of the child and sympathizes with difficult aspects of the situation (e.g., “It’s hard to wait my turn when I want to ride on the swing now”) and usually stresses the positive aspect of the situation or the correct way to act.
Comic Strip conversations
Otherwise known as storyboarding. A storyboard is a graphic organizer such as a series of illustrations displayed in sequence for the purpose of pre-visualizing a situation from a second or third person perspective. It is also a useful tool to help the child with developing an “episodic memory” in which he can tell events that he experienced in the past.
Video modeling is using video to present the correct and sometimes the wrong way to act in a particular situation. Research has shown video modeling to be effective in teaching social behaviors and skills. The kids tend to enjoy watching videos, and since children with autism are often visual learners, this really helps to show the child the appropriate way to act or response to a situation. It can be very fun if the child knows the people in the video, and they can even get involved themselves.
Role-playing involves acting out social interactions that the child with ASD would typically encounter in an unstructured school situation. For example, the practitioner might ask the child to respond to a peer who has invited him to play kickball during recess.
Peer mentors in the child’s class can encourage him to interact with others. With the right guidance, mentors can also model socially appropriate behavior and show their support to the child with ASD in unstructured school situations. This also helps the peers to get to know the child with ASD, and accept them as a peer and maybe even as a friend.
Since most ASD kids don’t pick up on social cues or understand unstated social rules, it’s important to consider and teach these things. Since they don’t have the same intuition as typical kids it’s easier for them to be put into a situation they won’t understand or know how to react, therefore they may end up being hurt physically and/or emotionally. Just being aware that these things could happen and how to handle them or prevent them can be crucial to your child’s success and well-being. “The Hidden Curriculum” by Brenda Myles and Jeb Baker’s “Preparing for Life” are great books that address many things we all just take for granted that kids should know how to handle, such as:
Leaving the stall door open in a public bathroom
Accepting rides from friends who can drive, who may not have good intentions
Things that can happen when driving, like carjacking or being pulled over by a police officer who doesn’t understand autism.
Dealing with anxiety
How to find, make and share new friends
Sharing personal information
“Friends” taking advantage of your child or their belongings
While it’s not feasible to consider and teach your child about every single possibility, sometimes you have to take a step back from a situation and break it down into parts and pieces so you can make sure you are addressing each piece in order to save your child the anxiety in an unknown situation.
FAIL: A Funny Parenting Story
When my daughter was a junior in high school, she came home from school one day and said “Um, something happened today and I am upset about it.” She said a boy came up to her in chess club and started asking her questions and talking to her. She thought he was being invasive and said, “I felt like he was setting me up for something.” Well, it turned out he was. He was trying to ask her out on a date. She had no idea what that would even look like and had no idea that was what was happening when it actually happened to her. She thought he was picking on her. We sat down and had what I thought was a pretty thorough discussion and all was well. Then one day she came home and said another boy had asked her out on a date! I said, “Oh wow! What’s his name?” She had no idea. Other than being in the same after-school club with him, she knew nothing about him. Oddly, she had actually agreed to go on the date with him, even though she didn’t know his name. Clearly, we had much more work to do on the subject. My point here is that skimming the surface is simply not enough. What we assume a child should know by “reading between the lines” and what they actually know is very different and needs to be taught, step by step.
Growing Up and Moving On
When you are the parent of a child who seemingly has no interest in anything or anyone, you throw a HUGE party the day your child shows an interest or joy in a character, game, toy or activity. You go out and buy one in every color and a spare just in case the original gets lost, and you do it gladly. It’s great because you can use the new toy as a motivator for almost anything you want your child to do and it calms them down when stressed. Those are all good things.
The problem comes over time, when your 3-year-old who eats, sleeps and breathes Teletubbies turns into a 16-year-old that still eats, sleeps and breathes Teletubbies.
Socially, your 16-year-old child may want very badly to make friends but without age-appropriate toys or interests, he cannot. Other 16-year-old kids won’t be interested in Teletubbies, and even if they are for a short period, you cannot base a friendship on Teletubbies, no matter how much you try.
It’s wonderful as parents to have comfort with stability in your child’s interest. However, at some point you need to step outside that comfort zone and expose your child to new toys, new things, new places, new activities to make them a more rounded person, capable of growing their interests with their age. I’m not suggesting you take away all of their favorite things the day they turn 12, but as parents you should be opening their world up to new adventures, flavors and experiences which will help your child grow up as they grow older. Have faith in your kids that no matter their functioning level, they can be open to change.
No, the world does not revolve around you
One aspect of autism (the word autism literally means “to one’s self”) that can be aggravating to others and can act as a barrier to lasting friendships is what appears as self-centeredness or selfishness. For example, when your child gets themself a snack, and doesn’t ask anyone else if they would also like a snack or offer to share. Or they may go on and on about a topic that is clearly only of interest to them. This lack of consideration of others can affect all aspects of your child’s life so this becomes a must-have social skill to learn. Sometimes referred to as “theory of mind” or “social thinking”, successful social thinkers consider the points of view, emotions, thoughts, beliefs, prior knowledge and intentions of others.
Life skills, or independent living skills, are often lumped in with social skills, but they are different from social skills in that they are more geared toward taking care of one’s self. Examples of life skills are doing laundry, preparing food, bathing, shopping, paying bills, working, etc. Life skills classrooms are available in many school districts but if a class is not readily available, IEP or 504 goals can be written to address life skills.
Suggested Reading – Books and Websites
There are many books, curricula and even DVDs to teach social skills. Below are some of the most helpful. Most are suited for teachers, therapists, homeschoolers and do-it-yourselfers.
Model Me Kids videos demonstrate social skills by modeling peer behavior at school, on a play date, at a birthday party, on the playground, at a library, at the dentist, restaurant, and more. Real children model and narrate each skill. DVDs for ages 2-17.
The social skills training project utilizes a primarily cognitive-behavioral approach to teach social skills to children, adolescents, and adults who have social-communication difficulties.
TeacherVision has resources that are packed with techniques and strategies to help students with autism and their peers learn to interact with each other. These resources include teacher-initiated and student-initiated techniques that help build social skills and teach academic subjects to children with autism. Printables too.