Education and Counseling for Individuals Affected by Autism Spectrum Disorders


Promoting Social Competence and Play Skills in Kids on the Autism Spectrum

One of the traits of young people on the autism spectrum is social unresponsiveness (social avoidance behavior). Social unresponsiveness is fear of, or withdrawal from, people or social situations. This becomes a problem when it interferes with relationships with peers, in social situations, or other aspects of a youngster’s life. 

Symptoms of social unresponsiveness may appear as part of the child’s overall personality or as a situation-specific response to a particular stressor. Many kids with Asperger’s (AS) and High-Functioning Autism (HFA) are especially susceptible to self-consciousness in social situations that make them feel exposed or psychologically unprotected.

Social unresponsiveness can also develop as an ongoing reaction to repeated failure, mistreatment, or rejection by peers. Some AS and HFA children may show good peer-group adjustment and ability to interact socially, but they may display communication apprehension when asked to perform in public, answer academic questions, or engage in an activity that they know will be evaluated. Other types of social unresponsiveness may result from specific experiences or environmental factors.

In a manner of speaking, the opposite of social unresponsiveness is social competence. Social competence refers to a child’s ability to get along with others. A youngster’s social competence is affected by how well he communicates with peers, teachers and other adults. A youngster’s view of himself in relation to his family, friends and the wider world also affects his social competence.

How well a youngster gets along with others may be the single best childhood predictor of how well she will function later in life. Kids who are unable to sustain close relationships with peers, who are generally disliked, who are aggressive and disruptive, who can’t establish a place for themselves in the peer-culture, and who do not have a basic level of social competence by the age of 6 usually have trouble with relationships when they become adults. The long-range risks for a youngster who can’t interact well with peers may also include poor mental health, low academic achievement and other school difficulties, and poor employment history.

Conversely, a youngster is more likely to have stronger relationships, better mental health, and more success in school if she has many chances to strengthen her social competence by playing, talking, collaborating with others, and working out disagreements. The youngster doesn’t necessarily have to be a "social butterfly." Quality matters more than quantity when it comes to friendships. Kids who have at least one close friend tend to increase their positive feelings about themselves.

The checklist below was created to help parents and teachers check to see whether a youngster’s social competence is developing satisfactorily. Many of the traits included in the checklist indicate adequate social growth if they are “usually” true of the youngster. If a youngster seems to have most of the traits in the checklist, then he is not likely to need special help to outgrow occasional difficulties. Conversely, a youngster who shows few of the traits on the list will benefit from strategies to help build social competence.

The youngster:
  • Asserts own rights and needs appropriately
  • Displays the capacity for humor
  • Does not draw inappropriate attention to self
  • Does not seem to be acutely lonely
  • Enters ongoing discussion on a topic
  • Expects a positive response when approaching others
  • Expresses frustrations and anger effectively, without escalating disagreements or harming others
  • Expresses wishes and preferences clearly
  • Gains access to ongoing groups at play 
  • Gives reasons for actions and positions
  • Has “give-and-take” exchanges of information or feedback with others 
  • Has positive relationships with one or two friends
  • Interacts nonverbally with other kids (e.g., smiles, waves, nods, etc.)
  • Is able to maintain friendships even after disagreements
  • Is accepted versus rejected by other kids
  • Is invited by other kids to join them in play
  • Is named by other kids as someone they are friends with or like to play with
  • Is not easily intimidated by bullies
  • Is not excessively dependent on parents or teachers
  • Is usually in a positive mood
  • Is usually respected rather than feared by other kids 
  • Makes relevant contributions to ongoing activities
  • Negotiates and compromises with others 
  • Shows appropriate response to new people (as opposed to extreme fearfulness or indiscriminate approach)
  • Shows interest in others 
  • Shows the capacity to empathize
  • Shows an interest in keeping friends and misses them if they are absent
  • Takes turns fairly easily
  • Usually copes with rebuffs or other disappointments adequately

Though each component contributes to the other, there is a necessary initial sequence to the elements of learning social competence for children: (1) the ability to enter play successfully, which (2) creates feelings of being accepted by others, which (3) leads to friendships and to caring about others, which (4) makes the youngster more willing to consider the perspective of others instead of just his own. When these components are in place, the youngster is usually open to assistance with social skills and behaves in a fairly socially acceptable manner.

Parents and teachers should think about a youngster’s motivation for prosocial behaviors (e.g., sharing, compromising, taking turns, etc.). Some young people simply don’t care if they hurt others or make them upset. These are usually the kids who feel rejected by peers – and who reject peers in return. If a youngster has little empathy, then parents and teachers are going to have little luck with lessons about “getting along.”

A basic component for learning social competence is having friends, which for most kids, means having playmates. In order to have playmates, young people must be able to successfully enter into play with their peers, which may be the most basic part of developing social competence. The process of playing with others not only provides motivation for learning social skills, it also provides superb practice. Play provides many opportunities for conflict resolution and negotiation, which help kids to be empathic (i.e., to consider the needs and feelings of others). Considering the needs and feelings of others is called “perspective-taking,” which is also “basic” to developing social competence.

Below are suggestions for AS and HFA kids who are socially unresponsive, and how parents and teachers can promote the development of social competence:

1. Any time your AS or HFA youngster exhibits socially appropriate behavior, praise her and let her know you are proud of her.  Also, be sure to state exactly why you are proud (e.g., “Julie, you did a great job saying ‘hello’ to Mrs. Johnson.  That’s you being friendly.”).

2. Don’t speak FOR your youngster. When someone approaches her (e.g., asks her name or comments on her pretty dress), it may be tempting to speak for her.  By speaking for your youngster, it lets her off the hook because she doesn’t have to respond. Also, it sends the message that her voice isn’t necessary, which can reinforce social unresponsiveness.  So, let you child speak for herself as often as possible.

3. Find information on the internet, in books and magazines, etc. on ways to be prosocial and make friends. Share this information with your child. In addition, social stories about “making and keeping friends” are especially helpful when attempting to promote prosocial behavior in AS and HFA children (click here for an example).

4. For the AS or HFA youngster who is socially unresponsive, it may take her a while just to muster up the courage to attempt to join a play group. Let her go at her own pace with your support and encouragement.  Pushing a youngster to join in play may lead to humiliation and resentment towards you.

5. Help the youngster develop confidence that she will be accepted by her peer-group. A youngster who approaches playmates with confidence is more likely to gain entry to play. On the other hand, the hesitant child is more likely to experience peer-rejection. Peer-rejection starts a cycle of ineffective behaviors that lead to even more rejection. Parents and teachers can make a difference with careful confidence-building strategies.

6. Parents and teachers can help kids on the autism spectrum become socially competent by encouraging friendships. Friendships are crucial for a variety of reasons: (a) friendships offer the best opportunities for developing the interpersonal understandings needed for socialized behavior; (b) kids are more likely to be successful when initiating contact with friends, thus increasing their confidence; (c) kids care more about the feelings of friends than about those of others, thus encouraging them to practice perspective-taking; and (d) kids’ play is more sophisticated and mature when they are playing with friends, which improves their competence.

7. Teach your youngster positive self-talk.  Have her list the things she can do, what she is good at, and friends and family that care about her.  Have her practice saying all of this to herself.  Keep the list posted in a prominent place. In this way, she is reminded of all her good qualities.

8. The AS or HFA youngster will have a much easier time being outgoing in social situations if his parents model good social behavior.  For instance, when you are out with your youngster, make an effort to be especially friendly and outgoing to people. This will let your youngster see that it is safe to relate to others (i.e., family members, friends, acquaintances, and even strangers).

9. Well-meaning parents and teachers often insist that “no child be left out,” but this eliminates a teachable moment that may actually make things worse for the AS or HFA youngster in the long-term. There is usually a reason for a youngster being rejected by the play group, and it is the adult’s job to assess the situation and figure out why. Usually there is a missing skill that the child needs to develop. So, parents and teachers should try to identify what needs to be learned – and then teach it. Insisting that a particular youngster be allowed to play just covers up the problem, teaches no social skills or understanding, and makes the other kids more resentful of the “special needs” youngster forced upon them. Consider how you would feel if you were in a meaningful conversation with your best friend, and an uninvited acquaintance jumps in and disrupts the conversation. It’s reasonable at times for kids to ask not to be disrupted by others.

10. Young people on the autism spectrum must be helped to avoid advances that disrupt the ongoing play among his peers. Too often, the AS or HFA youngster will barge into a play situation like an Army tank and be totally surprised and disappointed when the other kids get angry. In these cases, it would be helpful to teach the child a “beginning strategy” that does not interrupt. For example: (a) doing a similar activity near the play group; (b) observing what the desired playmates are doing, which provides information that the youngster can use by offering a way to contribute or fit into the existing play (the youngster who joins a group with a contribution to ongoing play is most likely to be accepted); or (c) simply playing alongside potential playmates.

Play is a common form of interaction between - and among - all kids. Young boys and girls do not construct their own understanding of a concept in isolation – but in the course of interaction with peers. Some of the social skills developed through play are (a) the ability to work towards a common goal, (b) cooperating with peers, and (c) initiating a conversation. By using the strategies listed above, parents and teachers can help the AS or HFA child to move past social unresponsiveness – and on to social competency.

Teaching Social Skills and Emotion Management

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