Social Skills Training for Kids on the Autism Spectrum: Behavioral Rehearsal

 "What is 'behavioral rehearsal' [the social skills method used for kids on the autism spectrum] and how do you use it exactly?"

Behavioral rehearsal is used primarily to teach basic social skills to children with Asperger’s (AS) and High-Functioning Autism (HFA) in a way that allows for the “creative practice” of such skills. This technique involves acting-out situations and activities in a structured environment in order to repeat newly acquired skills (or previously learned skills) that the youngster is having difficulties performing.

Behavioral rehearsal can be either scripted or spontaneous. In the spontaneous approach, the youngster is provided with a scenario (e.g., asking a peer to play with him), but not with the specific script. Usually, it’s best to combine scripted and unscripted elements to each rehearsal (e.g., the youngster might be provided with an opening statement or question, but the rest of the interaction would be spontaneous). 

Behavioral rehearsal can be used to teach a variety of social skills, particularly those involving initiating, responding, and terminating interactions. For example, the youngster may be required to initiate a conversation with peers who are engaged in a separate task, thus he would have to ask to join in, or ask his peers to join him in an activity. The latter typically proves to be most difficult for kids with AS and HFA. 

During the first few rehearsals, it is not uncommon for the AS or HFA youngster to get “stuck” in conversations or interactions without knowing what to say or how to proceed. During the early sessions, the youngster should be given ample time to process and respond to the different scenarios. As the sessions progress, speed and proficiency should steadily increase. 

Examples of practice scenarios used in behavioral rehearsal:

1. Active Listening: Active listeners show speakers that they are paying attention. They do this through body language (e.g., offering appropriate eye contact, orienting the body in the direction of the speaker, remaining quiet, etc.) and verbal feedback (e.g., restating, in their own words, what the speaker is trying to communicate). One technique for teaching active listening to AS and HFA kids can go like this: Assign children to one of three roles (e.g., a speaker, a listener, and an observer). The speaker is instructed to talk for a few minutes about something important to her. The listener attends quietly, providing cues to the speaker that he is paying attention. When the speaker is finished talking, the listener also repeats back, in his own words, the speaker’s points. The observer’s job is to evaluate the speaker and listener (e.g., Did the speaker stay on topic? How did the listener indicate that he was paying attention?). After the observer shares the observations with the others, the players switch roles and try again.

2. Bullying: Bullying is popular theme in AS and HFA kids' rehearsal activities. One youngster can assume the role of a bully and pretend to hit or shove one of his peers. The bully will taunt the victim to fight back, at which point the victim should walk away, call for help, alert the nearest teacher, or some combination thereof.

3. Charades: Children engage in a variety of social skills activities during a game of charades. A player draws a slip of paper from a box and silently reads the word written on it. Then she tries to convey this word to her peers through pantomime. What gestures are most likely to communicate the important information? After each round, encourage the children to engage in analysis (e.g., Which gestures worked? Which ones didn’t? Why?).

4. Cooperative Group Construction Projects: Rehearsing group construction projects (e.g., collaboratively building a house using Legos) force an AS or HFA child to pay attention to his peers’ efforts, to communicate, to negotiate, and to cooperate. In one study of children with AS and HFA, students attended a one hour session of group construction play once a week for 18 weeks. Compared with students given special training in the social use of language, the students in the construction group showed greater improvement in their social interactions. Other research indicates that the benefits of these experiences last for years.

5. Saying “No” to Drugs: AS and HFA kids can learn about saying no to drugs through rehearsal exercises. When performing this type of exercise, one youngster takes on the role of a drug dealer who offers to give or sell drugs to one of his peers. When the peer refuses, the drug dealer will taunt her, calling her scared and chicken. But the taunts should have no effect on the peer, who will deliver a final firm "NO" and exit the scene.

6. Following the Leader: Standing in line and following a leader is another important skill for AS and HFA children. Have the children line up behind a leader and follow her through an obstacle course. All the children must stay in line and take turns as they pass through each section of the course.

7. Good Sportsmanship: Team sports can make very effective social skills activities for AS and HFA kids. Before a game, talk to the children about the goals of good sportsmanship (e.g., showing respect to other players and to the referee, showing encouragement and offering help to other players who may be less skilled, resolving conflicts without running to the teacher, being a good winner by not bragging and taunting the losers and by providing supportive feedback to the losers, being a good loser by congratulating the winner and not blaming others for the loss, and so on). During the game, give children the chance to put these principles into action “before” you intervene in conflicts. If they don’t sort things out themselves after a few minutes, you can jump in. And when the game is over, give the children feedback on their good sportsmanship.

8. Gossiping: Behavioral rehearsal can help deter AS and HFA kids from speaking ill of their peers. In this rehearsal, one youngster pretends to spread vicious rumors about a classmate to one of his friends. After running out of gossip, he will ask his friend if he has dirt on any of his classmates. The friend will insist that he doesn't and, when pressed, will declare that it is harmful to talk about others behind their backs and that he doesn't want to be part of it.

9. Make Me Laugh: Learning self-control is a crucial skill for AS and HFA kids. Here’s a classic game that encourages these children to practice self-control: The children freeze like statues, then one youngster (who is “it”) must try to get them to break character and laugh. The first one to laugh becomes “it” for the next round.

10. The Name Game: AS and HFA kids need to learn the importance of getting someone’s attention “before” they speak. For this rehearsal, have children sit in a circle and give one child a ball. Then ask her to name another youngster in the circle and roll the ball to that youngster. The recipient then takes his turn, naming a youngster and rolling the ball …and so on.

11. Avoiding Strangers: Behavioral rehearsal is a good way to teach AS and HFA kids about stranger danger. For this type of rehearsal, a parent or teacher can assume the role of a stranger (e.g., Mr. Clark) who pulls up in a car and requests the youngster's assistance in reaching a certain address. After the youngster offers directions, Mr. Clark should insist that the youngster get in the car and accompany him to his destination. The youngster should adamantly refuse and promptly distance herself from Mr. Clark. If Mr. Clark continues to pursue her, the youngster should run and scream for help.

12. Reading Facial Cues: Helping AS and HFA children learn to pay attention to facial expressions in others is also a great subject for behavioral rehearsal. Collect photographs of people making different facial expressions and paste them to index cards. Your collection should include expressions of: anger, disgust, fear, happy, sad and surprise. These are basic emotions, and the facial expressions people use to communicate them seem to be similar across cultures. Before using your new cards with children, test them out on grown-ups, asking them to guess what emotion each expression represents. Re-do and pictures that adults have difficulty identifying. Although you can use the index cards as flash cards (e.g., “What is this person feeling”), there are also several games you can play. For example:
  • Have the children match each facial expression card with a situation that might evoke the emotion (e.g., a foot being stepped on, a person being snubbed or ignored by others, a person receiving a gift, a tower created from toy blocks being kicked over, an ice cream cone that has fallen on the ground, someone running from a mean dog, and so on).
  • Players take turns picking a card from the deck and inventing a reason for the facial expression displayed (e.g., if the player picks a card with a man showing disgust, the player might say, “He just stepped in mud puddle”).
  • Shuffle the cards and put them face down. The first player picks a card, keeps it to herself, and then mimics the facial expression on the card. The other player(s) have to guess the correct emotion.

Other ideas for behavioral rehearsal could include:
  • attending a funeral
  • being a guest
  • being a host
  • going to a restaurant
  • going to church
  • meeting new people
  • offering sympathy
  • receiving gifts or compliments
  • sharing toys
  • shopping for groceries

Behavioral rehearsal is a way for AS and HFA children to practice basic social skills. It is particularly helpful for children who have difficulty getting along with others. When using behavioral rehearsal, be sure to stress the process and not the end result. Know that there will be times when the youngster will handle a situation beautifully, yet things will not work out the way you thought they “should” have. Also, be sure the youngster in a good mood before starting a practice session. 

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


Anonymous said.. I am not sure why you give so much in the form of information for free. I just want you to know that it has helped my parenting so much. Because of you, I have a great high-functioning autistic teen-ager, and a great relationship with him.

1 comment:

Judith Lloy said...

I agree with teaching kids about stranger danger. But most sexual molestation is imposed by individuals that the child knows well and trusts and that parents would never suspect.

It is vitally important to teach kids with AS and HFA what is appropriate and inappropriate touch. What kind of "games" are not ever appropriate. And that the only kind of secrets that are ok for them to keep with another adult or older child are surprises that will be revealed at a given set time.

Since these children are often especially trusting, and interperate things literally, they may not realize early signs of inapproprate behavior. And they may be especially vulnerable, especially if offered rewards for "helping" someone or "acting".

practice sessions for firmly saying no and that they are going to tell are enourmously important. Saying things like, "grown ups are not supposed to touch kids there!" or "Kids are never supposed to look at that! Thats private!" are deterants because they jolt an adults attention to their actions. And insructing your child that in those cases it is ok for.them to scream, bite, kick, scratch, and hit.

And maintaining a you.can tell me anything and I will protect you policy with kids is vital, and prove it with far less major confessions so that they trust their parents.

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