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Social Skills Education for Children on the Autism Spectrum: Tips for Parents and Teachers

"I understand that social skills must be taught to children on the autism spectrum, but how can parents actually do this outside of a formal skills training course? Thanks in advance for your response!"

The process of teaching social skills to children with Aspergers and High-Functioning Autism (HFA) involves a six-step plan:
  1. assessment of existing skills
  2. defining what skills will be taught (i.e., setting goals and objectives)
  3. planning how the skills will be taught (i.e., teaching strategies)
  4. implementing the teaching plan
  5. assessing child progress
  6. adapting the teaching strategy so that the child acquires the target skill

Most social skills programs for kids with Aspergers and HFA fall into one of two theoretical frameworks: (1) behavioral and (2) developmental.

1. In a behavioral approach, the youngster’s behavior is evaluated according to (a) the presence of dysfunctional behavior (e.g., presence of abnormal behaviors, abnormal frequency of certain behaviors) and (b) behavioral deficits (e.g., absence or low frequency of typical skills). Behavioral teaching strategies are then designed to increase the youngster’s performance of deficit skills and decrease dysfunctional behavior. These strategies involve:
  • identifying the target of teaching
  • determining the appropriate antecedent and consequence for the target behavior
  • using systematic instruction and assessment to teach the target behavior
  • assess child progress

CLICK HERE  for an example of a Behavioral Intervention Plan.

2. The developmental approach involves assessing each developmental area (e.g., motor, cognition, communication, social development, etc.) and using the youngster’s successes, emerging skills, and failures to determine his or her area of development. This area indicates the set of skills that the youngster appears to be ready to learn next, based on his or her assessed performance. Those skills are then targeted for teaching.

Goals for specific social skills identified in interactions with adults may focus on early prelinguistic behaviors (e.g., joint attention, turn taking, imitation, responding by gaze to adult initiations, initiating social interactions with adults, etc.). These interactions occur within a play context, so establishing and supporting “toy play” with an grown-up may be a goal for kids on the autism spectrum.

As these young people grow older, interactions with adults may more often occur in classroom contexts. Although such classroom-based interactions may also occur in a play context, the nature of adult-child interactions will extend to behaviors necessary for functioning independently in the classroom. Social skills (e.g., responding to teacher directions, independently participating in the routines of the classroom, expressing needs to teachers, requesting assistance of the teacher, etc.) all become important functional skills necessary for Aspergers and HFA kids to be successful in classroom settings.

Since communication is the process by which individuals carry out social relationships, the special needs child’s communication skills are a big part of social development. Developing social goals and objectives needs to be conducted alongside developing communication goals and objectives. Therefore, assessing communication skills and needs, and making sure that teaching strategies for communication are integrated with social teaching strategies, are critical for developing skills that are functional for the youngster.

Play, like communication, is an important social activity in childhood. Play skills, like communication, must be assessed and considered within the social context. Development of more mature play skills in both independent play and social play is important for the social development and peer-interaction of kids with the disorder, since play is the glue that holds together peer-interactions in childhood.

Assessing an Aspergers or HFA youngster’s actual behaviors toward other kids (e.g., initiations, responses, interest in others, level of social play, etc.) provides an important baseline against which to measure the degree to which interventions are having valid effects. This assessment, when paired with information about priorities, parents’ concerns, skills needed to be successful in the current educational settings, and skills needed to be successful in the next educational setting, can serve as a basis for selecting functional social outcomes that parents and teachers can select for young people on the spectrum.

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


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--- Hi Mark, I bought your ebook on aspies and relationships. It is good. I have only read some of it, but of all the asperger relationship books I've read, yours is definitely the best. 

Teaching Students with High-Functioning Autism & Asperger's

Presented by parents, teachers, and professionals in the field of Autism Spectrum Disorders, this video explains underlying differences in students on the spectrum and suggests strategies for increasing their success in school: 

==> Teaching Students with Aspergers and HFA: Course for Educators

The 3 Types of Children on the Autism Spectrum

“Are most children on the autism spectrum basically the same with respect to symptoms and level of functioning, or are there significant differences from one child to the next?”

Active  -  Aloof  -  Passive
Kids with Aspergers (AS) and High-Functioning Autism (HFA) demonstrate widely differing levels of skills and severity of symptoms. These children demonstrate impairments in relationships to peers, the use of nonverbal communicative behaviors within their social exchanges, the use of imitation, and symbolic or dramatic play.

Social interactions are characterized by low rates of both initiation and response. This is most marked in interactions for the purpose of sharing experiences and establishing interpersonal connection.

The use of nonverbal communication (e.g., gestures, emotional expressions) is affected in AS/HFA kids, both expressively and receptively. These children use fewer nonverbal gestures and a more limited range of facial expressions in their communications than neurotypical (non-autistic) kids.

Kids with AS/HFA appear to pay less attention to other’s emotional displays, and they tend to demonstrate fewer acts of empathy or shared emotion. Kids with AS/HFA also demonstrate less imitation of other’s actions, movements, and vocalizations.

There are wide-ranging differences in the levels of play skills seen in kids with AS/HFA. However, functional play and other “object play” are not impaired relative to neurotypical children. Only the production of “symbolic play acts” is markedly deficient.

Sensorimotor play also appears to be affected, with more repetitive and immature play seen in kids with AS/HFA. Given the importance of symbolic play for normal development, this is an important target of early intervention for AS/HFA kids.

There are wide-ranging differences within the group of kids with AS/HFA in their social interests and behaviors. In terms of general sociability, there are 3 sub-groupings of these kids based on social interests:
  1. Active but odd: This group makes initiations and responds to others. They are interested in interactions and seek them out, but their ways of carrying out the interactions are unusual in their odd language, obsessive topics, and lack of understanding of others.
  2. Aloof: This group is indifferent in all situations, particularly marked with peers, though approaching to get needs met and often enjoying physical interactions.
  3. Passive: This group involves kids who initiate few social interactions, but respond positively to the approaches from others.

The descriptions of these groups imply developmental differences, IQ scores, language levels, and patterns of brain function. The descriptions also imply differences in context (e.g., a youngster may be detached from friends, but passively responsive to grown-ups) as well as differences in temperament and amount of negative behavior displayed in social interactions.

Characterizing the patterns in this way is useful to parents, teachers and therapists, because it helps to focus interventions and set priorities. 

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


•    Anonymous said... My boy is closest to 3. This is very interesting
•    Anonymous said... My aspergers son is closest to 1, craves company and social situations. He becomes obsessed with games and collecting the latest craze to ensure he can not be left out conversations. Being left out of something is taken as a huge personal insult. If a group of friends go somewhere together without him even something as simple as the park or swimming pool, it can trigger a full on melt down. Yet he can really struggle to grasp the social interactions. If he is with us and close friends he can show his stress but if with less well known people he will hold it in and explode at home for hours, recalling it for days, weeks and sometimes even years. It's very hard because people do not see that he's holding it in, they just see an 'ordinary' child who can speak a little 'old fashioned' at times or get a little pushy and shouty. They don't seem to notice the twitching, worry or anger in his voice when he's stressed. Wouldn't change him for all the world though.

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My child has been rejected by his peers, ridiculed and bullied !!!

Social rejection has devastating effects in many areas of functioning. Because the ASD child tends to internalize how others treat him, rejection damages self-esteem and often causes anxiety and depression. As the child feels worse about himself and becomes more anxious and depressed – he performs worse, socially and intellectually.

Click here to read the full article…

How to Prevent Meltdowns in Children on the Spectrum

Meltdowns are not a pretty sight. They are somewhat like overblown temper tantrums, but unlike tantrums, meltdowns can last anywhere from ten minutes to over an hour. When it starts, the Asperger's or HFA child is totally out-of-control. When it ends, both you and your child are totally exhausted. But... don’t breathe a sigh of relief yet. At the least provocation, for the remainder of that day -- and sometimes into the next - the meltdown can return in full force.

Click here for the full article...

Parenting Defiant Teens on the Spectrum

Although Aspergers [high-functioning autism] is at the milder end of the autism spectrum, the challenges parents face when disciplining a teenager on the spectrum are more difficult than they would be with an average teen. Complicated by defiant behavior, the teen is at risk for even greater difficulties on multiple levels – unless the parents’ disciplinary techniques are tailored to their child's special needs.

Click here to read the full article…

Older Teens and Young Adult Children with ASD Still Living At Home

Your older teenager or young “adult child” isn’t sure what to do, and he is asking you for money every few days. How do you cut the purse strings and teach him to be independent? Parents of teens with ASD face many problems that other parents do not. Time is running out for teaching their adolescent how to become an independent adult. As one mother put it, "There's so little time, yet so much left to do."

Click here to read the full article…

Parenting Children and Teens with High-Functioning Autism

Two traits often found in kids with High-Functioning Autism are “mind-blindness” (i.e., the inability to predict the beliefs and intentions of others) and “alexithymia” (i.e., the inability to identify and interpret emotional signals in others). These two traits reduce the youngster’s ability to empathize with peers. As a result, he or she may be perceived by adults and other children as selfish, insensitive and uncaring.

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to read the full article...

Highly Effective Research-Based Parenting Strategies for Children with Asperger's and HFA

Become an expert in helping your child cope with his or her “out-of-control” emotions, inability to make and keep friends, stress, anger, thinking errors, and resistance to change.

Click here for the full article...

My Aspergers Child - Syndicated Content