“Socially different” describes children who may not use appropriate eye contact, may not know how to open or close a conversation, may be isolated from their classmates for a variety of reasons, may have trouble with self-control, don’t seem to fit in with others in the classroom (which is easily identifiable by the other classmates), or are unable to maintain social acceptance. Such social skills deficits often characterize children on the autism spectrum. An important method for overcoming these deficits involves the use of Social Scripts.
Social Scripts are a social narrative that provides direct instruction of social situations for young people with Asperger’s (AS) and High-Functioning Autism (HFA). The scripts are written by the youngster’s parent or teacher (sometimes with the help of the youngster), providing a visual cue and desired social responses. The content of the script should match the youngster’s needs and take his or her perspective into consideration.
Social Scripts can reduce the stress associated with social interactions and assist the AS or HFA youngster with understanding the perspective of others. Slang or child-specific terms in the script can help the conversational exchange appear more natural. Scripts can be used to help a youngster deal with uncertainty, introduce change in routine, teach various routines, or address a wide variety of impeding behaviors (e.g., aggression, fear, obsessions, etc.). Other examples of ideas for scripts include:
- Being assertive without being pushy
- Compromising and negotiating
- Conversation starters
- Dealing with failure or being left out
- Dealing with peer pressure
- Disagreeing with others
- Giving and responding to criticism
- Learning to participate appropriately in groups
- Respecting someone’s personal space
- Responses and ideas to connect conversations or change the topic
- Settling conflicts
- Taking charge of one’s feelings
- Thinking about one’s behavior before, during, and after speaking
- Using appropriate eye contact, voice, tone, expression, and posture
Here is an example of a Social Script written for Michael, a sixth-grader with Asperger’s, for purchasing a fountain Coke at the corner gas station (which he was allowed to do several times a week):
When I go to the gas station for some pop, I will stand in line at the pop machine until the people in front of me are done getting their drinks. Then I will get my drink and go to the cashier. The cashier will say something like, “Hi, is that all for today?” I will say, “Yes.” If she asks me if I want anything else, I will say “No.” I will then hand her $2.00 and will be given some change. Then I will say, “Thank you.”
Daily observations and reports from others who interact with the AS or HFA child can help determine the skills that need to be practiced. Basic social skills are a good place to start. For example, respecting personal space, greeting someone, making eye contact, using active listening, and starting/ending a conversation should be part of every scripting lesson. Skills should be applicable to the child’s needs, daily experiences, and interests in order to help maintain his motivation. Blending humor into the scripts or using silly names for the characters can help maintain motivation as well. In addition, scripts need to match the child’s life experiences at home, at school, and in his community.
Social Scripts can be used in groups as well (e.g., special education class). Once the “special needs” children are comfortable with practicing the scripts, short field trips can provide opportunities to practice and enhance newly learned skills. Peer-assistance is often helpful to the social skills class or target group. Due to the fact that socially challenged kids tend to associate with other socially challenged kids, peer-assistance is highly beneficial because the assistant can model social situations appropriately and help children with social skills deficits acquaint themselves with people outside their usual circle of peers/friends.
Social Scripts may not be appropriate in all situations, because there is a risk of making the AS or HFA child sound too “rehearsed” or “scripted” in her response. Since children on the autism spectrum struggle with generalization of skills, they may try to use one particular script at the wrong time. For example, Michael learned how to purchase his fountain Coke at the gas station through scripted communication. However, when he ordered a Coke at a fast food restaurant, he became agitated when asked additional questions about the order, such as “Do you want a meal with that?” and “Do you want a regular Coke – or diet?”
When parents and teachers utilize Social Scripts, these prompts should be systematically faded out fairly quickly. Otherwise, the AS or HFA child may continue to spontaneously communicate with friends and classmates using scripted phrases. Visual prompts (click on the picture at the top of this article for an example) have the potential to be more effective than verbal prompts given by a parent or teacher because they are much easier to fade out.
Using Social Scripts as a prompting procedure to teach kids on the spectrum to engage in more complex play, initiate and maintain conversations with others, and participate in a variety of community activities can be effective in the short and long term. The key to using scripts is to fade them out so the child does not become dependent on the prompt.