Enhancing Social Skills
Children with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) experience challenges in social relationships. A deficit in social interactions and communication is one of the identifying characteristics of ASD. Children with ASD may appear uninterested in social interactions and may have difficulty understanding the behaviour of others. Children with ASD may desire social engagements but lack the necessary social skills to develop these relationships.
What are Social Skills?
Social skills are the verbal and nonverbal behaviours that allow people to participate in various social situations.
1. Why Teach Social Skills?
We understand that children with ASD learn new skills differently (see Module 4). In the same way, social skills must be explicitly taught. Children with ASD take in information about the world and respond to that information in a different way. This has a profound effect on their ability to interact with people.
Social and communication skills are highly interdependent. Difficulties in both of these areas have separate and joint effects on an individual’s ability to develop and maintain relationships with others. Children with ASD may experience a lot of confusion and frustration as a result of these difficulties. This can lead to secondary problems such as tantrums, or other challenging behaviours. Promoting social and communication skills can be critical in the overall well-being of a child with ASD.
2. Social Development Milestones
Typically-developing children show the following social behaviours by approximately the ages indicated in brackets:
- Smiles at familiar adults (1½ months)
- Imitates simple actions (9 months)
- Engages in a simple game with others, such as rolling a ball back and forth (1 year)
- Imitates actions of another child (1½ years)
- Watches other children play and attempts to join briefly (2 years)
- Plays alone, in presence of other children (2 years)
- Plays simple group games (e.g., Ring Around the Rosy) (2 years)
- Begins to take turns (3 years)
- Forms temporary attachment to one playmate (3½ years)
- Takes turns and shares without supervision (4½ years)
- Plays cooperatively with up to two children for at least 15 minutes (5 years)
- Has several friends, but one special friend (5 years)
- Plays cooperatively in large group games (5½ years)
(Adapted from A Work in Progress, 1999)
Social Skills of Children with ASD
The social skills of children with ASD may differ from those of typically-developing children (see Module 1).
Below are some characteristics of social skills that children with ASD may demonstrate:
- Often shows attachment to familiar adults, such as a parent, but may be uninterested in other adults and children
- May demonstrate an awareness or interest in others but may not have the social skills to interact appropriately
- May have difficulty imitating peers
- Imagination and pretend play are limited and play is generally repetitive
Identifying Social Skills
1. Social Skills to Target for Young Children with ASD
(Note: overlap with early communicator skill targets)
- Attending to objects
- Being with other children
- Asking for help
- Using social conventions (e.g., “Please”, “Excuse me”)
- Voicing greetings and farewells
2. More Advanced Social Skills to Target for Children with ASD
- Displaying peer entry skills
- Offering help
- Asking someone to play
- Playing a game
- Identifying emotions and other nonverbal cues
Self-calming techniques and social skills
Self-regulation may be essential for promoting appropriate peer interactions, although it is not considered to be a “social” skill. The child’s ability to manage his own body, mind, and emotions make successful inclusion with peers more likely. These particular adaptive skills may at first require a great deal of adult support. See Module 2 for adaptations to the environment that assist children in coping with a group setting. See Modules 3, 4, and 6 for strategies to teach adaptive “self-calming” behaviours.
It is important to observe both the child and the child’s peers in order to ensure that the social skills activities are as follows:
- Consistent with the child’s likes/dislikes
- Lending themselves to interaction with others
- Age appropriate
- Peer appropriate
NOTE: Although making activities age and peer appropriate is the goal, the child’s skill level and interests must also be taken into account.
Toys, games, and ideas to encourage social interactions:
- “See & Say”
- Simple foamboards/ puzzles
- Dolls, stuffed animals
- Shape sorter
- Cars, vehicles
- Musical videos
- Action songs
- Activity Centre
- Solitary play
- Tea Party/ Birthday Party
- Lego, Blocks
- Cars, Vehicles
- Marble maze
- Dolls, action figures
- Play kitchen
- “Candy Land”
- Matching games
- “Snakes & Ladders”
- Construction play
- Pretend play
- Socio-dramatic play
Adapted from A Work in Progress, 1999
1. Strategies for Teaching Social Skills
Children with ASD may have challenges initiating and including others in their play. Start with games that do not require toys, such as physical activities like tickling or chase. Structured activities are predictable and become routine. They will eventually leave little to interpret and can be easily taught. Games with repetitive actions, sounds, words, and movements/sensations that the child enjoys encourage social interaction. Singing games like “Ring-Around-the-Rosy” or “Row, row, row your boat” encourage simple social engagement and turn taking.
During “Row, row, row your boat”, pause and allow the child to take a turn by filling in a word and/or the action. Then take your turn and keep the song going. Provide prompts when necessary for the child to take a turn at first. The more practice a child has had with joining activities with another person, the more successful s/he will be when playing with other children.
Tasks that highlight a child’s strengths and interests may be used in peer-directed activities. For example, a child with an interest in weather might take charge of posting the day’s weather on the calendar during circle time.
Play with Peers
Promote play with other children by choosing activities that are predictable, structured, and of interest to everyone involved. Consider games the child with ASD already knows and has played independently. Determine distinct roles to encourage cooperative play, sharing, and turn taking. Adult prompts and modelling may be required to initiate and sustain play interactions among peers. It is important to remember that the goal is to teach the child with ASD how to play with his/her peers.
Here are some toys and combinations that provide opportunities for cooperative play at various levels:
- Ball or car: “sender” and “receiver” (on floor, down a slide)
- Bubbles: “blower” and “popper”
- Toys in the sandbox: “hider” and “seeker”
- Containers, various materials: “filler” and “dumper”
- Talk about a pre-selected topic of interest: “asker” and “teller”
- Cooperative building (Lego, blocks): “builder” and “knocker down”, “block chooser” and “builder”, or take turns placing blocks
- Wagon: “rider” and “puller”
(Adapted from: Social Skills for Young Children, IWK Health Centre; and A Work in Progress, 1999)
Exercise: Developing Play with Peer
Choose a cooperative peer and ask them whether they would like to play a game with ___________ (the child with ASD). If the peer agrees, arrange a brief game during which you may provide the children with prompts when necessary to ensure some success for the child with ASD (e.g., popping the bubbles, completing the puzzle, knocking down the tower of blocks). Be sure to build in positives for the peer partner (e.g., praise, access to another preferred activity after the game).
Visual strategies have been identified as effective supports for children with ASD in their communication and cognitive development (Modules 2 and 5). They can also help children with ASD develop social skills. Visual aids act as a reminder and breakdown the expected tasks involved in appropriate behaviour in social routines.
- Cue Cards
Cue cards are visual aids that remind the child what to do in social situations. They are pictures or symbols used to replace or reinforce verbal directions, or used to quickly and quietly redirect a child. Cue cards can be used to prompt appropriate social scripts, such as “It’s my turn,” or “Hi”. Cue cards also promote appropriate behaviour like “Line up” or “Hands to self”. For cue cards to be effective, consider the child’s strengths and abilities.
- Social Scripts
Social scripts are visual aids used to demonstrate language to the child with ASD in social interactions. They are arranged to depict appropriate behaviour in a social situation. Scripts typically involve a series of visual cues. For example, a script for greeting someone on arrival at preschool could be three visuals depicting: (1) Open door; (2) Say “Hi” to____; (3) Stop (wait for ____to say “Hi”).
The picture sequence should be placed next to the door or given to the child by the parent to view before entering the room.
Visual scripts can also be used to guide a child through a play activity with another person. For example, to help a child to participate in a bubble-blowing activity, a visual script could be used to cue the child to: (1) wait for the other child to blow bubbles; (2) pop the bubbles; (3) say “My turn”; (4) put out a hand for the container of the bubble solution.
Note: The pictures in a visual script should be aligned and read in a row; either horizontal (left to right) or vertical (top to bottom) depending on what the child is used to.
A social story is a short story that describes a situation, concept, or social skill. It includes information about what to expect in the situation and why. These stories may improve the social understanding for children with ASD. Social stories can be written to address any number of topics, including self-help skills, social interactions, changes in routine/environment, and behavioural strategies. Social stories are written in the first or third person to provide a literal and concrete understanding of appropriate behaviour. Carol Gray’s The New Social Story Book – Illustrated Edition provides guidelines for social stories.
An example of a social story for a simple behaviour is as follows:
When the lights are turned on and off it is time to tidy up.
I see the lights go on and off.
I will stop what I am doing.
I will put away the toy.
We all wait for our teacher to tell us that it is time for snack.
I will wait for my teacher.
My teacher will be pleased that I have waited quietly.
Social stories should be written to match the ability of the child. In general, social stories are suitable for older children with stronger language abilities. To make social stories more enjoyable, they can be made into picture books with photos or illustrations on each page. Taking photos of the child in appropriate situations allows the child to be part of the story. Social stories can also be combined with music. This may assist some children to better remember the information. For social stories to be the most effective they need to be read to the child on a consistent and (ideally) daily basis when the child is calm so that s/he can process the information. When the child is met with the same social situation in the future they are hopefully able to recall the social story.
The following are key points to remember:
- Social skills are significantly impaired in children with ASD.
- This impairment compounds difficulties in other areas, such as communication and behaviour.
- Social skill targets have to be chosen carefully based on criteria such as age and interests.
- The use of games, visuals and social stories are three of the strategies that can be used to help a child to develop appropriate social skills.
- Plan activities that naturally bring children together.
- Facilitate interaction with peers by providing the child with peer-directed tasks, and give prompts as needed.
- Efforts should be made to generalize social interactions across different settings and people.