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Teaching Interpersonal Relationship Skills to the "Friendless" Child on the Autism Spectrum

One of the most significant problems for children with Asperger’s (AS) and High Functioning Autism (HFA) is difficulty in social interaction. AS and HFA also create problems with "mind reading" (i.e., knowing what another person might be thinking or feeling).

Most young people can observe others and guess (through a combination of tone and body language) what's "really" going on. But without help and training, AS and HFA children can't.

What comes naturally to “typical” kids does not come naturally to kids on the autism spectrum. The lack of interpersonal relationship skills makes it difficult for these boys and girls to make and keep friends – and often leads to social isolation. Now for the good news: Parents can learn to teach interpersonal relationship skills to their “special needs” youngsters.

Indicators That Your Child Needs Social Skills Training 

Here are some concrete ways to give AS and HFA children the tools they need to interact appropriately in social situations:

1. Practice reciprocal interactions. Some kids with AS and HFA have very one-sided conversations. They often talk only about their favorite subject, fail to ask questions to the peer they converse with, and fail to acknowledge interests of the peer. Thus, teach your youngster how to ask questions during a conversation, and practice taking turns while talking. Let your youngster ask a question, answer it, and let him ask another question. Do this exercise regularly to teach him how to have a conversation.

2. Rehearse social situations through role-play. If your youngster has difficulty in a specific social situation, practice it beforehand. Kids with AS and HFA must be taught what to say and do in specific situations. Engage in role-play with your youngster to physically act-out the situation. Tell him what he is expected to say or do, and then actually have him act it out with you.

==> Teaching Social Skills and Emotion Management

3. Consider involving your child in a skills-acquisition group. Relationship skills groups offer an opportunity for children with AS and HFA to practice their interpersonal skills with each other and/or “typical” peers on a regular basis.

4. Teachers can play a crucial role in teaching social skills to students on the autism spectrum. These skills need to be learned and understood well enough by the AS or HFA students to generalize them to outside situations beyond the classroom environment. Thus, to promote “skill generalization,” interventions should focus on orchestrating peer-involvement by prompting students to engage and initiate social interactions with classmates.

Teachers can also work with each individual student to practice new skills learned. Involving outside people (e.g., moms and dads, other family members, other classrooms) to promote different interactions can easily support this. Additionally, field trips can help provide natural and safe settings to practice interpersonal relationship skills outside of the classroom. Lastly, intervention sessions should be used to practice skills (e.g., assigning homework tasks) to increase repetition of training and ensure long-lasting learning.

5. Interpersonal relationship skills should not be a set of hard-and-fast rules. You can’t force AS or HFA kids to memorize them the way they would a set of multiplication tables. Different situations call for dynamic thinking. Thus, teach problem-solving and new ways to approach a particular challenge.

6. Parents can teach their youngsters how to recognize the feelings of others. Many kids with AS and HFA have great difficulty understanding how others feel by reading cues. This greatly impacts their social interactions. Therefore, use picture cards, books and magazines to point out facial expressions to your youngster. Teach her what each facial expression is and what it means. Let her practice by telling you what each facial expression is and what it means.

7. The biggest mistake parents can make is to assume that interpersonal relationship skills can be taught once and remembered forever. Social interaction is fluid, with so many variables that it can be daunting even to a “typical” youngster. For those on the spectrum, the training must continue far longer. Challenges get more and more complex as a youngster ages, bringing more things into the picture. So, be sure to go over the skills your child learned in the beginning on a regular basis, adding in more skills that can help her fine-tune her interactions.

8. Make use of “social skills training” materials. There are many tools and interventions available that involve using videos, software or virtual-reality programs to teach complex interpersonal relationship skills (e.g., recognition of emotions in facial expressions and tone of voice).

9. Make use of social stories. Social stories are simple stories written from the youngster's point of view. Each story describes a specific situation, what other people will do or say in that situation, and what your youngster is expected to do or say in that situation. Information on how to write social stories can be found HERE.

10. Locate resources in your area. Drama therapy, for example, is somewhat unusual, but where it's offered, it has the potential to be both fun and educational. Video modeling, video critiques of interactions, group therapy and other approaches may also be available in your area.

Training an AS or HFA youngster in relationship skills may take months – or even years. You may not see any improvement at first – but over time, it will happen. Stay the course, try new training methods, and be there for your youngster as he matures. Positive results will come if you keep at them.

Take into account the many facets of social interaction. Think about your youngster's strengths and weaknesses. Know his abilities as well as his language skills. With plenty of forethought, you can implement a good social skills training program for your child.

==> Teaching Social Skills and Emotion Management

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