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How Therapists Teach Social Skills to Children on the Autism Spectrum

“The importance of teaching social skills is mentioned a lot on this site. I was wondering what a therapist actually does when he or she is training a child with Asperger syndrome or high functioning autism. Can parents accomplish the same results at home?”

The therapist who teaches social skills to children on the autism spectrum usually begins by breaking down complex social behaviors into smaller pieces. Then he arranges these smaller parts in order of difficulty, and gradually introduces them to the child.

For instance, a therapist who is helping a child learn to feel more comfortable in group activities could make a list of specific behaviors that belong to the complex behavior called behaving appropriately in groups, which would include specific actions that will make in more likely the child will “fit-in” with his/her peer-group (e.g., introducing oneself to others, making conversation with several peers in the group rather than just one “favored” peer, keeping one's conversation interesting, sharing, etc.). The child can then work on one specific behavior at a time rather than trying to learn them all at once.

Some specific strategies in social skills training include: feedback, shaping, instruction, modeling, reinforcement of positive interactions, and role-playing. For instance, “instruction” may be used to convey the differences among assertive, passive, and aggressive styles of communication. The strategy of “monitoring” may be used to ask the child to increase his/her eye contact during a conversation.

In “role-playing” exercises, group members have the opportunity to offer feedback to one another about their performances in simulated situations (e.g., Michael and Sara may role-play a situation in which Michael asks Sara if he can join in a particular activity with Sara …then the other group members give feedback about Michael’s assertiveness or Sara’s response).

Parents can indeed do a lot to help their child gain social skills. Many children with Asperger’s and High-Functioning Autism are unable to see social clues, understand age appropriate behaviors, and read body language. The first step in teaching a youngster who struggles with social skills is to educate yourself on the possible reasons behind his/her lack of skills (e.g., behavior management problem, communication problem, problem with sensory integration, etc.). There are many possible reasons behind your youngster’s behaviors, and knowing the root cause will give you clues as to what he/she needs to work on in the way of social skills.

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

If your youngster struggles with learning social skills, you may find that you have to repeat yourself a lot, or your youngster may learn a new skill – but then regress. This is typical, so don’t allow yourself to get frustrated.

Some examples of social skills training techniques include the following:
  • Picture cards, social stories, and visual reminders are great for kids who need to learn organizational skills.
  • You can use a script to help your child role play through a difficult social situation at school. For example, if your child is having trouble with bullying, write a script for him and encourage him to role-play possible responses and actions. Scripts can even help your child through very basic scenarios (e.g., asking for help in the classroom).
  • Relationship role-play can be used to practice conflict resolution, learn how to share, and develop effective communication skills. This particular brand of role-play allows the child to practice skills for any imaginable scenario so that she can use it to her advantage when feeling anxious about a situation.
  • Using games and puzzles can be extremely helpful in developing “cooperative play.” 
  • Visual cue cards can provide the youngster with suggestions to (a) prompt him/her in appropriate behavior and choices when interacting with peers, (b) help the youngster remember how to open and eat his/her snack, (c) learn how to get ready for school in the morning, (d) know how to pack up his/her backpack at the end of the school day, and so on.
  • You can create a script to outline procedures and events – and to help your youngster feel less anxious. Scripts can help the youngster to understand why things are happening. For example, for your daughter's first visit to a dentist, prepare a simple script that outlines the process, go over the script with her ahead of time, and show her the script during the appointment so she will remember what to expect.

Other examples of social skills training techniques include social games, combining cue cards and scripts with social games, and video modeling.

Social skills activities give mom and dads the opportunity to interact with their “special needs” youngster in a fun and structured environment. Social skills training can help the youngster feel more confident, boost his sense of self-esteem, alleviate symptoms of depression and anxiety, and help him feel less isolated and more confident in life.

Resources for parents of children and teens on the autism spectrum:

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