Effective Social Interventions and Supports for Children on the Autism Spectrum

Kids and teens with Asperger’s (AS) and High-Functioning Autism (HFA) often have difficulty understanding social situations, which can cause stress and anxiety. Social situations that seem to be most problematic include:
  • Interpreting nonliteral language (e.g., idioms and metaphors)
  • Knowing how and when to use turn-taking skills (e.g., focusing on the interests of peers)
  • Recognizing that others' intentions do not always match their verbalizations
  • Understanding facial expressions and gestures
  • Understanding the “hidden curriculum” (i.e., those complex social rules that often are not directly taught)

Even when a youngster with AS or HFA receives effective instruction in social skills, situations will arise that require “interpretation.” Unless interpreted, these situations become a source of stress and do not support future learning. However, with interpretation, perceptions of seemingly random actions can be altered into meaningful interactions. Interpretive strategies include:
  1. the Situation-Options-Consequences-Choices-Strategies-Simulation (SOCCSS) strategy
  2. the Power Card
  3. Social Autopsies
  4. Cartooning


One interpretive technique, the Situation, Options, Consequences, Choices, Strategies, Simulation (SOCCSS) strategy, was developed to help AS and HFA kids with social interaction problems put interpersonal relationships into a sequential form. It helps them understand problem situations and lets them see that they have to make choices about a given situation, with each choice having a consequence. The steps of SOCCSS are:

1. Situation: When a social problem arises, the parent or teacher helps the youngster to understand the situation by first identifying:
  • who was involved
  • what happened
  • the date, day, and time of occurrence
  • reasons for the present situation

2. Options: The youngster, with the assistance of the parent or teacher, brainstorms several options for behavior. At this point, the parent or teacher accepts all of the child’s responses and does not evaluate them. This step encourages him or her to see more than one perspective and to realize that any one situation presents several behavioral options.

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3. Consequences: Then the youngster and parent or teacher work together to evaluate each of the options generated. The parent or teacher is a facilitator, helping the youngster to develop consequences for each option rather than dictating them.

4. Choices: The youngster selects the option(s) that will have the most desirable consequences for him or her.

5. Strategy. Next the youngster and parent or teacher develop an action plan to implement the selected option.

6. Simulation: Finally the youngster is given an opportunity to role-play the selected alternative. Simulation may be in the form of:
  • writing a plan
  • visualization
  • talking with a peer
  • role play

The SOCCSS strategy offers many benefits to the AS or HFA child. It allows him or her to:
  • understand that many options may be available in any given situation
  • realize that each option has a naturally occurring consequence
  • develop a sense of empowerment by acting on the environment (i.e., these children realize that they have choices, and by selecting one, they can directly determine the consequences of their actions).

The Power Card—

Figure 1 - Click to enlarge
The Power Card is a visual aid that helps AS and HFA kids and teens make sense of social situations, routines, and the meaning of language. The Power Card uses their “special interests” to help them make sense of a specific situation and motivates them to engage in a targeted behavior.

In using this strategy, the parent or teacher develops a brief script written at the youngster's level of comprehension, which details a problem situation or a target behavior and its relationship to the youngster's special interest. Power Cards also provide a solution, relying on the youngster's special interest. This solution then is generalized back to the youngster. A card the size of a business card or trading card containing a picture of the special interest – and a summary of the solution – can be carried with the youngster to promote generalization.

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The Power Card can be carried in a pocket, purse, or wallet, or it can be velcroed inside a book, notebook, or locker. It also may be placed on the corner of the youngster's desk. Figure 1 provides an example of a Power Card for a 6-year-old female student with HFA who had problems focusing. Her special interest was Dora the Explorer.

Social Autopsies—

Figure 2 - Click to enlarge
This technique was created to help AS and HFA children with severe learning and social problems to develop an understanding of social mistakes. In the traditional sense, an autopsy is the examination and inspection of a dead body to discover the cause of death, determine damage, and prevent recurrence.

Similarly, a social autopsy is an examination and inspection of a social error to discover the cause of the error, determine the damage, and prevent it from happening again. When a social mistake occurs, the youngster meets with the parent or teacher to discuss it.

Together, in a non-judgmental way, they identify the mistake. Then they discuss who was harmed by the error. The final step of the autopsy is to develop a plan to ensure that the error does not occur again. Figure 2 is an example of a social autopsy worksheet.
Figure 3 - Click to enlarge

The visual area is a strength for kids on the autism spectrum. Therefore, visual systems often enhance their ability to understand their environment. One type of visual support is cartooning. This strategy has been implemented by speech/language pathologists for many years to enhance their clients’ understanding.

Cartoon figures play an integral role in a number of other intervention techniques (e.g., pragmaticism, mind-reading, and comic strip conversations). Each of these strategies promotes social understanding by using simple figures and other symbols (e.g., conversation and thought bubbles) in a comic strip-like format. This visual representation of a conversation helps AS and HFA kids analyze the social exchange.

Although cartooning has limited scientific verification, some evidence suggests that learners with AS and HFA may be good candidates for social learning based on using a comic format to dissect and interpret social situations and interactions. Figure 3 provides a cartoon depicting a social interchange.

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