Promoting Generalization of Social Skills: Help for Kids & Teens on the Spectrum

"What would be some ways to teach my teenage son [age 13] social skills? He really needs some friends but turns them off much of the time, so he's kind of a loner as it goes. What ideas have worked for others?"

Children with Asperger’s (AS) and High-Functioning Autism (HFA) are likely to have difficulties with social skills. In fact, about 75% of these children exhibit social skills deficits. Also, about 29% of teens with AS and HFA required social skills training beyond high school.

The importance of developing social competence can’t be overestimated since it is associated with academic achievement, peer acceptance, and employment success. Regrettably, the lack of social competence during early childhood is the single best predictor of mental health problems later in adulthood. Even more shocking is that experiencing significant difficulties with social skills becomes more unbearable over time, underscoring the crucial need for early social skills training.

Parents and educators can successfully teach social skills to AS and HFA children. But, the true challenge lies in ensuring that these children get the necessary social skills “where and when they count.” Most parents and educators have been relatively unsuccessful in promoting “generalization” of newly acquired social skills to natural settings (i.e., teaching social skills in a way that enables the child to apply his or her knowledge to varied situations and environments). Thus, the need to adopt intervention strategies that promote social skills generalization is critical.

Here are some ways that parents, educators, and even therapists (i.e., “instructors”) can promote generalization of social skills across situations, settings, and other people:

1. Kids with AS and HFA often need direct instruction in recognizing and labeling the emotions of themselves and others. Parents and teachers need to verbally label feelings to provide these kids with the “language of emotions.” Often times, “instructors” fail to realize that AS and HFA kids confuse emotions. Helping them to use the appropriate language and place a label on a feeling makes that feeling less scary and underscores the fact that others experience similar emotions. Kids can learn to recognize and use “para-language” (i.e., information that communicates emotion with or without words), for example, attitudes, facial expressions, gestures, interpersonal space, posture, and speech patterns.

2. Parents and teachers can capitalize on "teachable moments," which promote social skills generalization. However, some “instructors” need to learn how to incidentally teach. “Incidental teaching” involves the spontaneous teaching of skills during “naturally occurring” situations and encouraging kids to use skills at appropriate times.

3. Parents and teachers should identify social skills that are of crucial importance at both home and school (e.g., accepting criticism, controlling anger, following directions, giving and receiving compliments, listening, sharing, taking turns during conversations, understanding others' feelings, etc.). After the parent and teacher identify the social skill together, they can identify situations in which to teach it (e.g., times to share might be when peers play together, when a neighborhood youngster comes to visit, or when the family plays a board game together).

4. Parents and teachers should think in terms of "zones of behavior” when setting boundaries with AS and HFA children. For example, a green zone can include desired behavior, a yellow zone can include behavior that is tolerated in order to give these kids learning opportunities or to indulge them during a particularly difficult or stressful time, and a red zone can include behavior that isn’t tolerated under any circumstances (e.g., the behavior is too dangerous to the youngster or others, is immoral, is unethical, is illegal, is socially unacceptable, etc.).

5. Recognize an emotion as a teaching opportunity. Recognizing uncomfortable emotions as opportunities for teaching and intimacy (rather than as reasons to criticize, reprimand, or punish the AS/HFA youngster for experiencing these feelings) is an important piece to social skills training.

6. Teach AS and HFA children social skills in settings where the skills will be used. If teaching skills in a natural setting isn’t possible, parents and teachers can use role-playing to reflect a variety of settings or teach these kids to self-monitor their use of skills across settings. “Instructors” can also recruit other adults who play a role in the child’s life to prompt, teach, and reinforce use of appropriate social skills.

7. Make use of “cognitive mediators.” One method that enables AS and HFA children to generalize social skills is the use of cognitive mediators (e.g., positive self-talk, self-monitoring, self-recording, and self-reinforcement).

8.  Teach skills that are valued in the natural setting. Selecting social skills valued by peers, educators, and moms and dads increases the odds that “skill use” will be reinforced. Real-life reinforcement is essential if social skills training efforts are to continue over time.

9. Some instructors (whether a parent, teacher, or therapist) “overly-control” the instructional presentation to help AS and HFA children acquire new social skills. In other words, they adopt standardized presentation procedures, present information in a prescribed order, and require mastery before moving on to the next skill. Although these methods promote “skill acquisition,” they usually work against “skill generalization.” Thus, social skills instructors can encourage AS and HFA children to generalize by employing a variety of models and role-playing actors, reinforcing social skills across settings and situations, teaching several skills several times a day, and using natural language.

10. The importance of reinforcing or praising AS and HFA kids for using appropriate social skills (or “attempting” to use them) cannot be stressed enough.

11. Use reinforcement sparingly. After social skills are acquired, parents and educators should adopt schedules of reinforcement similar to those in natural settings. Usually, reinforcement occurs less frequently in natural settings than in instructional settings, requiring that parents and educators gradually reduce the frequency and amount of reinforcement. In some cases, AS and HFA children may need to be taught to recruit reinforcement and to self-reinforce so that they will continue to use social skills in environments lacking in external reinforcement.

12. Validate emotions by listen empathetically. Validation of an emotion does not necessarily mean “approval.” However, sometimes it’s important to just listen rather than advise the AS/HFA youngster or to impose logic on the situation.

13. Teach AS and HFA children how to problem-solve. Parents and teachers can teach these kids to more effectively solve social problems. Here’s a useful problem-solving sequence:
  • Define the problem
  • Identify potential solutions
  • Consider the outcomes of each solution
  • Implement a solution
  • Evaluate the effectiveness of the solution


Although many parents and teachers have been successful in teaching social skills to AS and HFA children, they have been far less successful in making sure these skills are used when and where they count. If “generalization” of social skills is to occur, “instructors” must adopt techniques that actively promote use of social skills across settings, situations, and other people.

More resources for parents of children and teens with High-Functioning Autism and Asperger's:

==> How To Prevent Meltdowns and Tantrums In Children With High-Functioning Autism and Asperger's

==> Parenting System that Significantly Reduces Defiant Behavior in Teens with Aspergers and High-Functioning Autism

==> Launching Adult Children with Asperger's and High-Functioning Autism: Guide for Parents Who Want to Promote Self-Reliance

==> Teaching Social Skills and Emotion Management to Children and Teens with Asperger's and High-Functioning Autism

==> Parenting Children and Teens with High-Functioning Autism: Comprehensive Handbook

==> Unraveling The Mystery Behind Asperger's and High-Functioning Autism: Audio Book

==> Parenting System that Reduces Problematic Behavior in Children with Asperger's and High-Functioning Autism

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