Making the Abstract Concrete: Teaching Social Competence to Kids on the Autism Spectrum

Many children on the autism spectrum don’t understand abstract concepts. They have trouble reading between the lines. If a person says, “I’m so angry I could spit,” they may wait and watch for the person to spit. Social competence requires an ability to think abstractly.

If the child has difficulty in this area, he or she may fail to understand facial expressions, have difficulty keeping emotions in check, have problems taking turns, interrupt others while they are speaking, prefer talking to adults rather than other kids, share information in inappropriate ways, talk too much about their favorite topic, or withdraw from conversations with peers entirely.

Similar to teaching many academic skills, teaching social competence involves abstract skills and concepts. Because kids with High-Functioning Autism (HFA) and Asperger’s tend to be concrete and literal, the abstract nature of these interpersonal skills (e.g., kindness, reciprocity, friendships, thoughts, and feelings) makes them especially difficult to master.

A first crucial step is to define the abstract social skill or problem in clear and concrete terms (e.g., knowing when your friend is joking versus being mean). The behavior must be clearly put into action and the youngster taught to identify it and differentiate it from other behaviors (e.g., Is this a friend or not a friend? Is this a quiet or a loud voice? Was I being teased or not? Am I following directions or not?).

Examples of making the abstract concrete include:
  • “If-then” rules can be taught when the social behaviors involved are predictable and consistent (e.g., “If someone says ‘thank you,’ then you say ‘you're welcome’.”).
  • Kids on the autism spectrum who are learning eye contact may respond better to the more concrete “point your eyes” than to “make eye contact” or “look at me.” 
  • Personal space can be defined concretely as “an arm away” or “a ruler away” instead of “too close.”

Short menus of behavior options can be presented for particular social situations for these young people to choose among (e.g., three things you can do to deal with teasing).

Visually-based instruction is another great way to make the abstract concrete. Many kids with HFA and Asperger’s – even those who have considerable verbal skill – demonstrate a visual preference oand learn best with visually-cued instruction. Incorporating visual cues, prompts, and props to augment verbal instruction can make abstract social skills more tangible and easily understood.

Other visually-based instruction may include:
  • A large “Z” made of cardboard can be used to depict the back-and-forth flow of a conversation.
  • Examples of intermediate and finished products can be used to demonstrate steps in activities or projects. 
  • Kids on the spectrum can be taught to look at the eyes of others using a cardboard arrow. They can be instructed to hold the arrow on the side of their face next to their right eye, and point it at the eyes of the person to whom they are speaking. This aligns their face and eyes in the correct direction. Once this skill has been practiced using this concrete visual cue, use of the arrow can be faded out.
  • Pictures can be used to define concepts or clarify definitions.
  • Voice volume or affect intensity can be depicted visually in a thermometer-like format.
  • Written lists can be used to summarize discussion topics.

Such visual prompts can be faded out eventually, and the skill can be practiced in more natural contexts.

For more information on teaching social competence to kids on the autism spectrum, click on the link below:
More resources for parents of children and teens with High-Functioning Autism and Asperger's:

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