Social deficits are a defining characteristic of autism. Kids with the disorder are not able to read social cues. They often cannot share space effectively nor adapt across different environments and different people. Some are nonverbal or aggressive.
Building social skills is important so these kids can function successfully in society. The trick is every child with autism is unique and requires individualized treatment of some kind. There are a few rules of thumb, however, that may help parents better help their child develop social skills.
Develop language. Janine Shapiro, speech language pathologist and board certified behavior analyst at the Applied Behavior Center for Autism, believes if a child is nonverbal or has poor verbal skills then developing language should be priority. “It’s hard to have good social skills without good language,” she said.
Target problem behaviors. If the child is aggressive toward peers, throws tantrums, or has a behavior that makes other kids not want to be in his presence, Shapiro advises parents to work on those with a behavior plan.
Mock situations. Look at the skill deficit and break that skill down. If the child does not know how to ask a peer to play, then set up a situation in which the child can practice asking their sibling or a family friend to play. The parent can explain the activity, set the rules, model what to do, help practice the skill, and provide feedback. “It takes lots and lots of repetition of a skill in a contrived setting,” said Leah McKenzie, board certified behavior analyst and clinical director at BACA Prep.
Recruit family. Improving social skills in a child with autism is a group effort. “It’s something the entire family needs to be involved in,” McKenzie said.
Reward good work. Tim Courtney, board certified behavior analyst and research and training director at Little Star Center, says parents or others working with the child initially have to make it worth it for the child to interact with others. If the child wants to watch a DVD, require he get it from someone who will interact with him and offer the movie as reward for the social exchange.
Set the child up for success. Courtney advises parents to support their child. “Do not put kids in a situation if they do not have the skills. Don’t set them up to fail socially. Often we put kids in front of a relative and want them to interact in some way and we know they don’t have those skills,” he said. If the child talks about dinosaurs a lot, tell the relative so the two can speak about a topic more natural to the child.
Teach age-appropriate social skills. “Look around at kids the child’s age and see what they are really doing. I often go to social skills treatment sessions and the kids are 5 years old and going around shaking each others’ hands. You can’t teach social skills from the perspective of a 40-year-old business person,” said Shapiro.
Help generalize skills. Teach the targeted skill in several settings, yet understand generalizing is hard for kids with autism. “Generalization is often difficult. Social situations are often difficult. Research shows that huge gains are not the norm. The problem is social demands and expectations are constantly changing. As soon as you have a child engaging appropriately and caught up then suddenly the rules change and there are new social norms you need to know how to do,” said Shapiro.
Be realistic. Social skills are difficult for many people. “Many people with typical intelligence and without a diagnosis have difficulty in social situations. To expect a child who we are assuming has different neural makeup to quickly compensate for these deficits with a little therapy is unfair and unrealistic,” Shapiro said.
Find good help. Find a talented therapist who is patient, understanding, knows what’s developmentally appropriate for the child, and has a passion for kids with autism. Applied Behavior Analysis is the most proven method, there are teachers who are effective at using its procedures and principles. Autism centers also offer help in various program styles. Some, like BACA, Little Star Center, and the Applied Behavior Center for Autism locally, even offer programs that provide children opportunities to work on social skills in more natural settings.