Teens with ASD: Social Skills

November 22nd, 2015

The future depends on what we do in the present. - Mahatma Gandhi

When my daughter with Asperger’s 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 asking for a date would look like, and 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.

Social skills are increasingly important with age. Acceptable behavior from a 4-year-old is no longer acceptable in 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 (and prevents wandering!), 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 are needed for anything from taking turns, to not interrupting conversations, to not telling “too much” truth (telling an overweight person that they arefat, for example), to conversational skills, to making and keeping friends. 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. Behavior differences may become more visible when kids become teens, and social conventions become more complex. In the teen years, typical peers are often less accepting of ‘different’ 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 feels all-important to most teens.

Real-life situations and the forgotten basics

Most ASD kids don’t pick up on social cues or understand unstated social rules. To protect teens, it’s important to consider and teach social norms. “The Hidden Curriculum” by Brenda Myles and Jeb Baker’s “Preparing for Life” are great books that address many social norms that kids should know how to handle, such as:

  • Closing the stall door in a public bathroom
  • Whether to accept rides from friends who can drive (somemay not have good intentions)
  • Anticipating things that can happen when driving, like carjacking or being pulled over by a police officer who doesn’t understand autism.
  • Body language
  • Dealing with anxiety
  • How to find, make and share new friends
  • Whether, when, and where to share personal information
  • "Friends" taking advantage of your child

While it’s not feasible to consider and teach your child about every single possibility, anticipating and breaking down common situations for your teen can reduce anxiety. Do your best to think through every step. When I talked to my daughter about dating, I didn’t suggest to her that knowing someone’s name is a prerequisite for dating. It’s easy to assume a teen knows certain unwritten rules, but in reality they often need to be explicitly discussed and taught, step by step.

Growing up and moving on

When your child who seems to have 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 who still eats, sleeps and breathes Teletubbies.
Socially, your 16-year-old may want very badly to make friends, but that may be impossible without age-appropriate toys or interests. Other 16-year-old kids won’t be interested in Teletubbies; even if Teletubbies enjoy a brief resurgence, you cannot base a friendship on Teletubbies, no matter how much you try.

It’s very helpful for parents when kids have a reliable interest. However, exposing your child to new toys, new things, new places, and new activities will help you grow your child’s interests with 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 experiences that will help your child grow up as the child grows older. Have faith in your kids that regardless of 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 apparent self-centeredness or selfishness. For example, when your teen gets a snack and doesn’t ask anyone else if they would also like a snack or offer to share, the teen appears inconsiderate. Talking on and on about a topic that is clearly only of interest to the teen can also be off-putting to peers. Lack of consideration forothers can affect all aspects of your teen’s life.Successful social thinkers consider the points of view, emotions, thoughts, beliefs, prior knowledge, and intentions of others. Teaching this skill is a must for teens.

Books, videos and curricula by Michelle Garcia Winner

Who provides training?

There is no formal education or certification required to teach social skills. Instruction can come from a variety of people, including educators, speech therapists, psychologists, occupational therapists, counselors, and parents themselves. 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. Include them in IEPs, practice them at home and in the community, and incorporate them in treatment plans with private therapists. Group programs like summer camps, after-school clubs, and standalone programs at local agencies serving people with disabilities also provide opportunities to develop social skills. Local psychologists or social workers may offer social skills groups for teens, or they can provide referrals to one. Extended School Year (ESY, aka summer school) is another opportunity for social skills training, since academic demands may be lighter.

No matter how many people you have teaching your teen social skills, unless skills are reinforced in daily life, across all situations, they will not be retained. Parental involvement is crucial because no one else interacts with your child in all aspects of their life, except YOU. Others can learn from watching you. Be the example for siblings, aunts, grandparents, and other friends and family by setting high standards 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.

Helpful tools

Social Stories

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, comic strip conversations act as a graphic organizer to help teens visualize a situation from a second- or third-person perspective. This technique is also a useful tool to help teens develop episodic memory, or the ability to retell past events.

Video modeling

Video can be used to present both preferred and undesirable behaviors for a particular situation. Children of any age tend to enjoy watching videos, and since children with autism are often visual learners, video modeling is an excellent tool to show teens the appropriate way to act or respond to a situation. It can be very fun if the child knows the people in the video, and if the child can be in it too.


Role-playing involves acting out social interactions that the child with ASD might encounter at school or in the community. For example, an instructor might use role-play to teach teens how to respond to peers when they’re asked to join an activity.

Peer groups

Peer mentors in the child’s class can encourage your teen to interact with others. With the right guidance, mentors can also model socially appropriate behavior and show their support to the teen with ASD in unstructured school situations. This also helps typical peers to get to know the teen with ASD, and accept the teen as a peer and maybe even as a friend.

Visual Prompts

A sign on the refrigerator or pantry that says, “Ask if anyone else would like something” can remind your teen to be considerate. This worked well for my daughter.


Therapies like Floortime/DIR/Play therapy and RDI (Relationship Development Intervention) utilize social skills training in their practice.

Life skills vs. social skills

Life skills, or independent living skills, are often included with social skills in treatment plans or IEPs. They should be viewed differently from social skills, since life skills are pertain to self-care, rather than social behavior. Examples of life skills are doing laundry, preparing food, bathing, shopping, paying bills, working, etc. Life skills can also be written into IEPs or treatment plans, but should be distinguished from social skills.


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.

Model Me Kids' Social Skills Lesson Plans

Conover Functional Skills System

Six tips to teach social skills and help kids make friends

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.

Sample social skills IEP goals

IEP Goal databank

Teaching Social Skills in the Language Arts Curriculum, a middle school teachers guide

Indiana University Autism Materials

An Introduction to Social Stories

Social Thinking

Books on Social Skills

The Social Skills Picture Book Teaching play, emotion, and communication to children with autism by Jed Baker

Social Skills Picture Book for High School and Beyond by Jed Baker

Preparing for Life: The Complete Guide for Transitioning to Adulthood for Those with Autism and Asperger's Syndrome by Jed Baker

Playing it Right! Social Skills Activities for Parents and Teachers of Young Children with Autism Spectrum Disorders, Including Asperger Syndrome and Autism by Rachael Bareket

Building Social Relationships: A Systematic Approach to Teaching Social Interaction Skills to Children and Adolescents with Autism Spectrum Disorders and Other Social Difficulties by Scott Bellini

Writing and Developing Social Stories by Caroline Smith

The Social Success Workbook for Teens: Skill-building Activities for Teens With Nonverbal Learning Disorder, Asperger's Disorder, & Other Social-skill Problems by Barbara Cooper

Super Skills by Judith Coucouvanis

The New Social Story Book, Revised and Expanded 10th Anniversary Edition: Over 150 Social Stories that Teach Everyday Social Skills to Children with Autism or Asperger's Syndrome, and their Peers by Carol Gray

My Social Stories Book by Carol Gray

Comic Strip Conversations by Carol Gray

Navigating the Social World: A Curriculum for Individuals with Asperger's Syndrome, High Functioning Autism and Related Disorders by Jeannie McAfee and Dr. Tony Attwood

Incorporating Social Goals in the Classroom: A Guide for Teachers and Parents of Children With High-Functioning Autism and Asperger Syndrome by Rebecca A. Moyes

Social Skills for Teenagers and Adults with Asperger Syndrome: A Practical Guide to Day-to-day Life by Nancy J. Patrick

The Hidden Curriculum: Practical Solutions for Understanding Unstated Rules in Social Situations by Brenda Smith Myles

Social Skills Games


Summer Camps for Social Skills


Related Teenagers with ASD Articles

Teens - Introduction and Article Links

Teens - Social Skills

Teens - Life Skills

Teens - Puberty: What to Expect, Seizures, Anxiety, Sexuality

Teens - Biomed with an Older Child

Teens - How to Start the GFCFSF Diet with an Older Child

Teens - Self-Advocacy and Self-Esteem

Teens - Keeping Your Teen Safe

Teens - Transition IEPs

Teens - Testing for Adolescents

Teens - Extracurricular Activities

Teens - Driving

Teens - Siblings

Teens - Preparing for College

Teens - Been There, Done That: Advice from Parents

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