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Most new parents have experienced a time when their own child or someone else’s child was that “one” child that was causing major disruption among all of the other children at a park or at a playdate. It’s hard to forget those humbling moments when your child is grabbing toys away from other children or randomly hitting others. When grocery store excursions become a flip of the coin between mom and dad to see “who gets to chase him first” or “who gets to sit in the car when she melts down” any parent will feel lost.
Parenting is not for the faint of heart and all children need to learn a host of “do’s and dont’s” as they mature. They need to learn table manners, how to ask for things properly, how to share and play with others and how to behave in public. We could add to this list of course, but the point is that all children need to learn social skills as they develop.
When you have a child with autism, social skills training needs to become more deliberate. The reason for this is that children with autism struggle to understand and succeed at understanding social interaction. There are a number of factors that cause this to be so.
➔ Speech Delays.
Children with autism have delays in speech that can make it difficult to maintain a conversation. They may repeat words or phrases over and over (echolalia), or they may answer questions with completely unrelated responses. This often pushes other children away because they don’t understand them and ultimately this leaves the child with autism isolated.
➔ Non-Verbal (receptive) Language Delays
Another reason that children with autism struggle with communication is that they tend to have difficulty reading non verbal cues. Non verbal cues are facial expressions or body gestures. For example, the look of boredom on a person’s face (facial cue) when they are no longer interested in a conversation might be obvious to most of us but to a person with autism it may go completely unnoticed. A person checking their watch and tapping their foot (body gestures) would give many people the idea that this person is either impatient or in a hurry. A person on the autism spectrum might fail to take notice of these gestures.
Similarly, sarcasm is difficult for children on the autism spectrum to understand. People with autism spectrum disorders tend to see everything in a very literal sense. So, to say something in colloquial language like “oh my goodness….you look so cute I could just eat you up!” might be a very frightening thing to say to someone with ASD. Jokes and teasing are no different. Something that is meant to be playful and innocent might sound scary and threatening to a child with autism who has not been taught about figurative language, joke telling or sarcasm.
This doesn’t mean that you should change the way you speak and avoid telling jokes or using figurative language. What this means is that these are the things that need to be taught deliberately in social skills training for children with autism.
➔ Low Emotional Intelligence
Another common struggle for children with autism is that they often fail to understand the feelings of others. This can lead to the misconception that children with autism are unfeeling or uncaring- but this is not the case. The difficulty for those with ASDs is that it is nearly impossible to think from another person’s perspective and consider how they might feel in various circumstances. The job of identifying and expressing their own emotions is one of the main interventions in social skills training for children with autism because it is such a common deficit with children on the autism spectrum. It is important to teach children with autism to identify and manage their own feelings and emotions first because until they can do that, it is nearly impossible to recognize how someone outside of them might be feeling.
What is the goal of my child’s Social Skills Training?
The first goal of social skills training for children with autism should be to bring their social interaction with other children up to the level of their same age peers who are not on the autism spectrum (neurotypical). This is especially true for young learners as it will set the tone for how well they succeed in school, work, community and other social settings that they will encounter.
When social skills intervention occurs early on, a child can build confidence at a much earlier age by learning how to make friends and get along with others. Getting along with others is a springboard for learning other valuable skills like sharing, taking turns, imaginary play and sportsmanship.
Speaking of sportsmanship, it is important to provide opportunities for children with autism to play games where they may win or lose. Children with autism “feel” the happiness and victory of winning and the sadness or frustration of losing with added intensity. This is a great opportunity to teach good sportsmanship or frustration tolerance in social skills training. One way to teach this is to model good sportsmanship. Play a simple game that you may lose, (suggestions- tic, tac, toe, Candyland, Tag or Hide and Seek) and thank the child for a fun game. Congratulate the child for winning. Modeling social skills is teaching social skills.
What Social Skills Should My Child Be Learning?
Playing with others requires social skills training that is focused on a few pivotal skills. These pivotal skills are the skills that make or break the ability for play to continue.
Talking with others is a pivotal skill that facilitates meeting, getting to know one another and building friendships. A child with autism who has social skills training will learn that it is much easier to join a group of children at play by saying hello and asking to play than it is to stand and watch. The more times that a child successfully communicates and interacts with others, the more likely it is that they will continue to communicate to meet their needs.
Once a child with autism begins to talk with others more often, learning how to share or take turns becomes easier to teach. Teaching children on the spectrum how to share requires an opportunity to play with other children or siblings. So, you can see how important it is to get children with ASDs to talk with others first. Sharing requires a little negotiation, “first you have the ball for five minutes and then I can have the ball.”
In the midst of communication, play and sharing there is bound to be conflict at some point. This is why managing emotions is considered another pivotal social skill for children with autism. When children with autism have difficulties managing their emotions it can be tied in with their inability to express themselves verbally or it can be a deficit in any combination of social, communication, sensory or executive functioning skills (memory, self control, flexibility).
When a child with autism has difficulty managing emotions, they might react to aversive or non-preferred stimuli in any of the following ways.
- Run away from the environment. (This can be dangerous in certain settings).
- Experience a meltdown similar to a tantrum that would be seen in a toddler. (this is true for some adolescents, even those with high functioning autism)
- Become aggressive or self harming
- Resort to self stimulatory behavior like hand flapping, rocking or pacing.
The far reaching impact of social skills training
Beyond the pivotal skills of talking, taking turns, sharing, and managing emotions, is the ability to extend those skills into imaginary play and problem solving. These are life enhancing social skills that will develop over time and with exposure to peers and problems.
Pretend play happens best with a group of children who take on various roles and create scenarios and banter back and forth with one another developing a story as they go along.
Problem solving is a life skill that is best developed in a social setting and through interaction with peers. It’s a social skill that requires a little prompting and teaching, but the more a child with autism interacts with other children the more likely they are to encounter situations that will require some negotiation. It could be anything from a small disagreement between two peers or it could be a puzzle that a group of children is trying to solve.
All of these important social skills can be taught in ABA therapy sessions and by inclusion in a social skills group for children with social skill deficits. These social skills intervention groups work the same way an ABA session would by using positive reinforcement and a natural teaching environment. The biggest difference would be that the social skills groups are focused on the group interaction and improving social skills with each child by providing opportunities to respond to situations and resolve potential conflicts as they arise by guiding the children step by step as they learn.
The end goal of social skills training and intervention is to bring children with autism up to the level of their neurotypical peers in order to behave appropriately in public and to make connections with other people at the earliest opportunity possible. These skills will follow them into school, community and workplace settings as they get older.
What Kinds of Strategies Are Used for Developing Social Skills?
Social skills intervention for autism should be fun while teaching necessary life skills. Luckily, social skills training is inherently fun because it’s all about getting groups of children together, playing and interacting.
Some social skills training will be targeted for independent activities like going to the dentist or accompanying mom to the grocery store.
Whether your child is learning how to interact socially with peers in a group, one on one or independently in school or community these are some strategies that can be used for teaching social skills.
Role Play is a useful strategy for practicing what will take place in a new situation that a child has never encountered before. If a child is going to the first day of school it can help ease any worries with a little first day of school role play. One child can pretend to be the teacher and another can be themselves. Practice introductions and finding a seat and starting the school day. Switch roles and allow the children to get creative and have fun with the role play. If imaginary play is difficult, a facilitator can step in and guide the role play.
Games are always a great tool for teaching rules, turn taking and sportsmanship (as mentioned above). These social skills can be difficult for a child with autism and it may require time and patience to teach them. Some independent practice with a therapist or an adult at home is sometimes helpful to work through and talk through frustrations before getting into a large group setting. In the end, the social skills that are learned through game play are valuable.
Observation can remove fear of the unknown for children with autism. If a child on the spectrum is going to be exposed to a new setting (school, daycare, park) or a new situation (dentist, airplane, amusement park) it would be worth the time and effort to find ways to observe these new scenarios before the child experiences them.
If they are going to a new school, try stopping by to meet the new teacher, see the classroom, and watch the kids play on the playground.
If they will be visiting the dentist, try looking up some videos of other children during their visits to the dentist. Make sure (of course) that the videos are positive experiences and that there are simple explanations of what the dentist is doing in the video. The more the child knows before the visit, the less likely they are to fear the visit.
Social Stories are stories that help children with autism learn what to do and what not to do in social situations. Social stories are written in a specific format:
*They are constructed teach perspective
*They present opportunities for responses.
*They reinforce and support what they learn from the stories
*They teach the important role played by other people in situations and how they are handled
*They are reviewed by using partial sentences (fill in the blank) to encourage a child with autism to determine the ideal response to social situations.
Social stories are available in book and video formats and they are increasingly popular in social skills training.
ABA Therapy is the most frequently recommended course of treatment for autism spectrum disorders because it has shown the highest evidence based outcomes. Social skills intervention can be taught using Applied Behavior Analysis. ABA therapy uses positive reinforcement to reduce undesired or inappropriate behaviors while increasing socially appropriate behaviors. ABA focuses on improving specific behaviors such as communication, adaptive learning skills, academics and social skills.
Social Skills Groups
Social skills training can happen in just about any setting and there are opportunities throughout the day that can be utilized as teachable moments for children with autism. But, one of the best places to start is a social skills group that is specifically set up as a safe and accepting environment for children on the autism spectrum.
Kids Club is an after school social skills intervention group that is run by Circle Care Services’s ABA therapists.
At kids Club, children learn how to better
- Talk to others
- Take turns
- Manage emotions
- Solve problems
This enables them to
- Build confidence
- Behave more appropriately
- Make new friends
All these skills are practiced and eventually mastered in a setting that is fun and free from any conflict or tension with peers. Parents need not worry that their child is being bullied or isolated. Compassionate Circle Care therapists play with the children using activities and situations that ultimately teach them how to better navigate social situations in their everyday lives.
As your child breaks through barriers that previously kept him from joining in with activities that might be messy or loud or include a lot of friends, he will gain newfound joy.
Learn more form a new group in your New Jersey location or enroll now.