Crucial Strategies for Social-Skills Training: Tips for Parents of Kids on the Autism Spectrum

For most children with High-Functioning Autism (HFA) and Asperger’s (AS), the most important parenting strategy involves the need to enhance communication and social know-how. This emphasis is not an attempt to stifle individuality and uniqueness - and does not reflect a societal pressure for conformity. Instead, it reflects the fact that most children on the autism spectrum are not “loners” by choice.

As these “special needs” children become teenagers, they often experience a sense of hopelessness, negativism, anxiety, or depression due to their increasing awareness of personal inadequacy in social situations - and repeated experiences of failure to make and/or maintain relationships. The typical limitations of insight associated with the disorder often prevent the child from engaging in spontaneous self-adjustment to social and interpersonal demands.

The practice of social skills does not mean that the HFA or AS child will eventually acquire social spontaneity and naturalness (i.e., social skills are not intuitive to children on the autism spectrum as compared to “typical” kids). However, it does better prepare the child to cope with social and interpersonal expectations, thus enhancing his or her attractiveness as a conversational partner or as a potential friend.

Here are a few suggestions intended to foster relevant skills in this important area:

1.  Explicit verbal instructions on how to interpret other’s social behavior should be taught and exercised in a rote fashion, not unlike the teaching of a foreign language (i.e., all elements should be made verbally explicit and repeatedly drilled). For example, parents (and teachers) can teach the meaning of various inflections as well as tone of voice, non-literal communications (e.g., humor, figurative language, irony, sarcasm and metaphor), gaze, facial and hand gestures, eye contact, etc. The same principles should guide the training of the child’s expressive skills. Concrete situations can be practiced at home, and gradually tried out in naturally occurring situations.

2.  The effort to develop the child’s skills with peers in terms of managing social situations should be a priority. For example, ending topics appropriately, feeling comfortable with a range of topics that are typically discussed by same-age peers, shifting topics, the ability to expand and elaborate on a range of different topics initiated by others, topic management, etc.

3.  Encounters with unfamiliar people (e.g., making acquaintances) should be practiced until the child is made aware of the impact of his or her behavior on other people’s reactions to him/her. Strategies in the program could be: practicing in front of a mirror, listening to the recorded speech, watching a video recording of behavior, etc.

4.  The child with HFA or AS should learn to recognize and use a range of different means to disagree, discuss, interact, mediate, negotiate, and persuade through verbal means. Also, it is important to help the child to develop the ability to anticipate multiple outcomes, to explain motivation, to make inferences, and to predict in order to increase the flexibility with which he or she thinks about - and uses - language with others.

5.  The child on the autism spectrum should be taught to monitor his or her own speech style in terms of: adjusting depending on proximity to the speaker, context and the social situation, naturalness, number of people, background noise, rhythm, and volume.

Other crucial skills that parents and teachers can teach include:
  • reading the body language of others
  • learning to cope with mistakes
  • learning peer group problem-solving
  • becoming aware of their emotions
  • maintaining eye contact
  • maintaining appropriate personal space
  • understanding gestures and facial expressions
  • resolving conflict
  • taking turns
  • learning how to begin and end conversations
  • determining appropriate topics for conversation
  • interacting with authority figures
  • identifying one's feelings
  • recognizing the feelings of others
  • demonstrating empathy
  • decoding body language and facial expressions
  • determining whether someone is trustworthy
  • making choices
  • self-monitoring
  • understanding community norms

Social interactions are very complex, and the list presented above is not exhaustive in terms of the skills that HFA and AS children may need to successfully navigate social situations. Furthermore, each child’s “social-skill profile” is different. Some of these young people may have strong foundation skills but lack appropriate interaction skills, while others may require assistance in developing more basic skills (e.g., starting a conversation).

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