“Abstraction” is a relative concept related to the age of the youngster. For a 3-year-old, “the day after tomorrow” is a highly abstract concept. But for a teenager, “the day after tomorrow” is relatively concrete. The ability to think abstractly is associated with the ability to transfer what is learned from one context to another. For instance, a child who is a reasonably abstract thinker may learn the organization of an essay in English class, and then transfer that learning to his writing in Social Studies class. Conversely, a concrete thinker may need to be specifically taught in both classes.
Relative to some academic skills, teaching "social competence" involves abstract skills and concepts. Because young people with Asperger’s (AS) and High-Functioning Autism (HFA) tend to be concrete and literal, the abstract nature of these interpersonal skills (e.g., kindness, reciprocity, friendships, thoughts, feelings, etc.) makes them especially difficult to master.
As it relates to learning social skills, here are some ways that parents and teachers can make the abstract more concrete for children on the autism spectrum:
1. “If-then” rules can be taught when the social behaviors involved are predictable and consistent (e.g., If someone says “thank you,” then you say “you're welcome”).
2. A large “Z” made of cardboard can used to visually depict the back-and-forth of a conversation.
3. AS and HFA kids learning eye contact may respond better to the more concrete “point your eyes” than to “make eye contact” …or “look at me.”
4. Kids can be taught to look at the eyes of others using a cardboard arrow. Instruct them to hold the arrow on the side of their face next to their right eye, and point it at the eyes of the person to whom they are speaking. This aligns their face and eyes in the correct direction. Once this skill has been practiced using this concrete visual cue, use of the arrow can be faded. When the AS or HFA youngster needs a reminder to look in someone's eyes, the arrow can be held up unobtrusively as a cue. Such visual prompts can then be faded, and the skill can be practiced in more natural contexts.
5. Knowing that an AS or HFA child is a concrete thinker, parents and teachers should adjust their language accordingly. Avoid the use of language that is at too high a level of abstraction, or link abstract language with its concrete equivalent. For instance, in encouraging a child to study hard, the mother or father may say, “Give it your best shot!” However, “Give it your best shot” is a metaphor that may be too abstract. A better alternative would be to say, “Study real hard,” which is a literal or concrete equivalent.
6. Personal space can be defined concretely as “an arm away” or “a ruler away” instead of “too close.”
7. Short menus of behavior options can be presented for particular social situations for these “special needs” kids to choose among (e.g., “three things you can do to deal with teasing”).
8. The new behavior must be clearly put into use, and the AS or HFA youngster should be taught to identify it and differentiate it from other behaviors (e.g., “Is this a friend or not a friend?” … “Are you following directions or not?” … “Is this a quiet or a loud voice?” … “Were you being teased or not?”).
9. Visually-based instruction is another example of a way to make the abstract concrete. Many kids with AS and HFA demonstrate a visual preference, or learn best with visually cued instruction. Incorporating visual cues, prompts, and props to augment verbal instruction can make abstract social skills more tangible and easily understood. Pictures can be used to define concepts or clarify definitions.
10. Voice volume or affect intensity can be depicted visually, in a thermometer-like format.
After implementing these techniques for a period of time, gradually remove the supports. Just as elementary school teachers gradually remove their students’ reliance on fingers as they do simple adding and subtracting problems, parents and teachers should gradually remove the concrete supports in order to facilitate the AS or HFA youngster’s more abstract social skills.
Teaching Social Skills and Emotion Management