Education and Counseling for Individuals Affected by Autism Spectrum Disorders


Communication Intervention and Social Skills Training for Kids on the Spectrum

For most children with Asperger’s (AS) and High-Functioning Autism (HFA), the most important treatment strategy involves the need to enhance communication and social competence. This emphasis on social competence does not reflect a societal pressure for conformity, and it does not attempt to stifle individuality and uniqueness. Instead, it reflects the clinical fact that most children with AS and HFA are not loners by choice, and that there is a tendency (as these kids develop towards adolescence) for hopelessness, pessimism, and oftentimes, anxiety and depression due to the child’s (a) increasing awareness of personal inadequacy in social situations and (b) repeated experiences of failure to make and/or maintain friendships.

The typical limitations of insight and self-reflection often preclude spontaneous self-adjustment to social and interpersonal demands. The practice of communication and social skills does not imply the eventual acquisition of communicative or social spontaneity. However, it does prepare the child with AS or HFA to cope with social and interpersonal expectations, therefore enhancing his or her attractiveness as a conversational partner or as a potential friend.

Below are some crucial suggestions intended to foster relevant skills in this area. These suggestions can be used by parents, teachers and therapists:

1. Encounters with unfamiliar people (e.g., making acquaintances) should be rehearsed until the AS or HFA child is made aware of the impact of his behavior on other’s reactions to him. Certain important strategies (e.g., practicing in front of a mirror, listening to his recorded speech, watching a video of his recorded behavior, etc.) should all be incorporated in a social skills training program. Social situations manufactured in a therapeutic setting that usually require reliance on visual-receptive and other nonverbal skills for interpretation should be used, and techniques for deciphering the most salient nonverbal dimensions inherent in these situations should be offered.

2. Explicit verbal instructions on how to interpret other’s social behavior should be taught and exercised in a rote fashion. The following should be taught in a manner not unlike the teaching of a foreign language (i.e., all elements should be made verbally explicit and appropriately and repeatedly drilled):
  • facial and hand gestures
  • non-literal communications (e.g., humor, figurative language, irony, sarcasm and metaphor)
  • the meaning of eye contact and gaze
  • various inflections and tone of voice

The same principles should guide the training of the child’s expressive skills. Concrete situations should be exercised in a therapeutic setting and gradually tried out in naturally occurring situations. All those in close contact with the AS or HFA child (e.g., teachers, coaches, scout leaders, etc.) should be made aware of the program so that consistency, monitoring and contingent reinforcement are maximized.

3. The effort to develop the child’s skills with peers in terms of managing social situations should be a priority. This should include:
  • ending topics appropriately
  • feeling comfortable with a range of topics that are typically discussed by same-age peers
  • shifting topics
  • the ability to expand and elaborate on a range of different topics initiated by others
  • topic management

4. The child with AS or HFA should be helped to recognize and use a range of different means to interact, mediate, negotiate, persuade, discuss, and disagree through verbal means. In terms of formal properties of language, the child may benefit from help in thinking about idiomatic language that can only be understood in its own right, and practice in identifying them in both text and conversation. It is important to help the child to:
  • anticipate multiple outcomes so as to increase the flexibility with which she both thinks about - and uses - language with others
  • develop the ability to make inferences
  • explain motivation
  • predict

5. The child with AS or HFA should be taught to monitor her own speech style in terms of adjusting, depending on proximity to the speaker, context and social situation, naturalness, number of people, background noise, rhythm and volume.

6. Spoken language may be odd. Sometimes, AS and HFA kids don't have the local accent, or they are too loud for a situation, overly formal, or speak in a monotonous tone. If the youngster has a good level of spoken language, parents and teachers should not assume his or her understanding is at the same level.

7. Metaphors (e.g., “food for thought”) and similes (e.g., “as fit as a fiddle”) have to be explained, because these “special needs” kids tend to make literal and concrete interpretations.

8. In some cases, language acquisition (i.e., learning to speak) can be delayed. These children make much use of phrases they have memorized, although they may not be used in the right context. A certain amount of translation may be needed in order to understand what they are trying to say.

9. Both verbal and nonverbal communications pose problems for children with AS and HFA. Spoken language is often not entirely understood, so it should be kept simple to a level they can understand. Take care to be precise.

10. Lastly, here are a few additional tips parents and teachers can employ to help the autistic youngster better understand the world - and in doing so - make everyone's lives a little easier:
  • Try to get confirmation that the child understands what you are talking about or asking. Don't rely on a stock ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answers.
  • Limit any choices to two or three items.
  • Keep instructions simple. For complicated jobs, use lists or pictures.
  • Keep all your speech simple to a level the child can understand.
  • Explain why the child should look at you when you speak to him. Give lots of praise for any achievement - especially when he uses a social skill without prompting.
  • Don't always expect the AS or HFA child to “act her age.” These kids are usually immature, so parents and teachers should make some allowances for this.

One of the most significant problems for young people on the autism spectrum is difficulty in social interaction. But AS and HFA also create problems with "mind reading" (i.e., knowing what another person may be thinking). “Typical” children can observe others and guess (through a combination of tone and body language) what is "really" going on. Without help and training, AS and HFA kids can't. This "mind blindness" can lead even the highest-functioning child to make social blunders that cause all kinds of relationship difficulties.

Without knowing why, the child can hurt others’ feelings, act oddly, ask inappropriate questions, or generally open himself up to teasing, bullying, hostility – and eventual isolation. But, by using the suggestions listed above, parents, teachers and other professionals can help AS and HFA children to develop some much needed communication and social skills that will alleviate a lot of these problems.

Teaching Social Skills and Emotion Management


SDL said...

This is EXACTLY what I need to teach my Aspie. How to you find programs that will teach this to him?? The school says he is too high functioning for Autism dx so his IEP is OHI instead. I am having trouble finding these SPECIFIC services for him. Any advice???

JaspieMummy said...

I find your website so useful in helping me to understand my son. Thank you!

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