This post will provide some crucial guidelines for how parents and educators can teach social skills to children with Asperger’s (AS) and High-Functioning Autism (HFA) at home and in the classroom. These “special needs” children often have difficulty saying what they mean, planning and controlling what they do, noticing and interpreting facial expression and body language, understanding what someone has told them, and accurately perceiving what other people do, say, or demonstrate. Fortunately, they have a patient and supportive adult like you. The ideas presented below will show you how to support them as they struggle to show the new behavior, and how to focus on progress rather than perfection.
Social skills are those self-management, problem-solving, peer-relations, decision making, and communication abilities that allow the AS or HFA youngster to initiate and maintain positive social relationships with others. Deficits in social behavior interfere with learning, teaching, and the classroom atmosphere. Social competence is linked to peer-acceptance, teacher-acceptance, inclusion success, and post-school success.
Displaying poor social skills is THE #1 factor involved in the “odd” behavior that gets AS and HFA children rejected and bullied by peers. Young people on the autism spectrum often fail socially because they have difficulty monitoring and controlling their behavior when unexpected situations occur. They may misread social cues given off by others. They may view the positive social interactions of others as threatening. And they may not even notice when a peer rejects, teases, or bullies them.
Depending on the child’s specific needs, a good “social skills training” program can include any of the following:
- ability to respond to a given environment in a manner that produces, maintains, and enhances positive interpersonal relations
- acceptable ways to resolve conflict with others
- accepting the consequences of one's behavior
- approaching others in socially acceptable ways
- appropriate classroom behavior
- asking for permission rather than acting
- attending to task
- awareness of own and other's feelings
- being able to predict how others might feel in a situation and understanding that others might not feel as you do
- better ways to handle frustration and anger
- coping with negative feelings
- counting to 10 before reacting
- dealing with stress
- distracting oneself to a pleasurable task
- following directions
- handling teasing and taunting
- how to make and keep friends
- learning an internal dialog to cool oneself down and reflect upon the best course of action
- manners and positive interaction with others
- positive, non-aggressive choices when faced with conflict
- seeking attention properly
- seeking the assistance of the teacher or conflict resolution team
- sharing toys and materials
- using words instead of physical contact
- what to do when you make mistakes
- work habits and academic survival skills
How to Teach Social Skills to AS and HFA Children—
You will do well to teach social skills just like you teach academics. Assess the level of the AS or HFA child, prepare the materials, introduce the material, model it, have him or her practice it, and provide feedback. If you purchase a social skills curriculum, simply follow the directions in the kit (it should include an assessment device, lessons, and activities). If you're developing your own curriculum and devising lessons, follow the tips below.
How to teach social skills to one specific child:
1. By way of an assessment, select the AS or HFA child who needs training in certain skills.
2. Task analyze the target behavior(s). Task analysis will help to teach complex behaviors by breaking down a task into smaller objectives. Applicable replacement behaviors are usually taught when the student displays inappropriate behavior in specific environments. AS and HFA students respond well in learning new goal behaviors when they're broken down into individual steps.
3. Determine what behavior to modify or replace by observing the AS or HFA student in a variety of situations. Expose the child to a variety of environments to reveal where the behavior occurs most frequently and why he or she feels the need to engage in negative behaviors in that situation. Examples of target behaviors may include:
- accepting "no" for an answer
- accepting praise from others
- accepting responsibility for one's own behavior
- accepting the consequences administered by the teacher
- apologizing for wrong doing
- asking permission
- asking questions appropriately
- avoiding fighting with others
- complimenting others
- compromising on issues
- cooperating with peers
- coping with aggression from other
- coping with taunts
- coping with verbal or physical threats
- dealing better with anger
- dealing with frustration
- dealing with losing
- following directions
- greeting others
- initiating a conversation with others
- interrupting others appropriately
- joining a group activity already in progress
- making a mistake in an appropriate manner without yelling or physical aggression
- making friends
- respecting the opinions of others
- saying please and thank you
- seeking attention in an appropriate manner
- showing sportsmanship
- understanding the feelings of others and accepting them as valid
- waiting one's turn
4. Speak directly with the child to get a better idea of what is important in his or her life and why the behavior is occurring. This can give a lot of insight as to what the child is trying to communicate by using negative behaviors.
5. Determine an appropriate replacement behavior and decide when it should apply. Make clear the focus and purpose of the positive behavior. The behavior should promote acceptable choices in the classroom.
6. Break the appropriate behavior or task down into small and clear objectives. This encourages quicker success instead of teaching the entire task at once. Move on to the next task as the child masters each one.
7. Determine where, and under what conditions, the child should practice the behavior. Specify the expected amount of change before moving on to the next objective. Make sure each objective is measurable.
8. Discuss and model the replacement behavior with the child. Practice the appropriate behavior or smaller objectives of the behavior in the appropriate environment.
9. Use positive reinforcements. AS and HFA students who are learning to apply appropriate behaviors may display the action more frequently if they receive a tangible reward each time they behave appropriately.
Teaching social skills to a group of students:
1. Create groups of 3-5 youngsters with similar skill deficits (smaller groups give the participants a chance to observe others, practice with peers, and receive feedback).
2. Try to meet early in the day so that the participants are attentive and have the whole day to practice what they learn in the lesson.
3. Introduce the program to the participants, and describe why and how it will benefit them.
4. Identify the behaviors that you will reward during lessons (e.g., raising hands when wanting to ask a question, one child speaks at a time, paying attention, etc.). These selected behaviors will need to be taught in the initial lesson.
5. Teach the easy-to-learn skills first to ensure success and reinforcement.
6. Teach to the higher-functioning children in the group first. Have them demonstrate the new behaviors, and then reward them. Have the lower-functioning children demonstrate the behaviors after the leaders do so.
7. Have the child self-monitor and self-assess in order to build internal motivation and control.
8. Have the participants practice through homework assignments, review sessions, and assignments to real life settings.
9. Make sure your lessons are interesting and fun so that the participants look forward to the lessons.
10. Monitor the child’s behavior outside of the lessons. Keep track of the behavior for IEP documentation.
11. Promote generalization to different settings and circumstances by (a) having the child submit self-report forms for each class period, (b) meeting with the child to discuss performance throughout school or home life, (c) practicing in different settings and under various conditions, and (d) prompting and coaching the child in naturally occurring situations.
12. Recognize and reward proper behavior in everyday school situations.
13. When you see a good situation for a child to display a "new" behavior, prompt its use with cues or hints.
As a side note, remember that AS and HFA children generally display negative behaviors to communicate thoughts or feelings – not because they are purposely trying to be defiant. Also, as with the teaching of academics, begin with the prerequisite skills and then move on to the more advanced ones. Your social skills training program should be comprised of the skills that are most important to classroom etiquette and the AS or HFA child’s social needs. Lastly, understand that while the teaching of social skills may consume a lot of time during the school day, over the weeks and months ahead, you will likely gain back lost time as the “special needs” child displays more acceptable behavior.
Teaching Social Skills and Emotion Management