Social Skills Training: Navigating the Nuances

All parents want their children to grow into a healthy and happy adults. But when a child with autism struggles to “fit in” socially, for many parents, their sense of worry kicks into overdrive. Suddenly, social skills training may become the parents’ top priority for the child. Parents may find themselves continually prompting their child to say “please” and “thank you”; they may set up play dates with typically developing children, or they may sign their child up for the local Park District soccer team.

In truth, perhaps the wisest thing parents can do is to step back and take a critical look at their child’s developmental level. While there’s little debate that learning social skills is a crucial goal for any child, the fact is that pushing social skills too hard and/or too soon for a child with autism may sometimes result in more harm than good.

Consider the child who is taught what to say in particular social settings. It’s possible that the child may learn certain things by rote – for instance, to answer “I’m fine, thank you,” when asked the question “How are you?” However, if the child doesn’t possess certain advanced communication skills, the child may never go beyond those rote, mechanical responses. In a natural environment, without the parent standing by the child’s side prompting the response, the child may revert back to non-communication. Or worse, the child may actively resist the forced interaction and possibly cry (or even scream) in the presence of a peer. This may be an extreme response, but it’s a real risk if the child has been pushed too hard – and once it manifests, it can be a very difficult attitude to reverse.


Determine priorities for social skills training

Assessments therefore become critical when it comes to social skills training, so that parents and therapists can prioritize the precise skill sets the child needs to learn. In particular, the VB-MAPP skill-tracking system can help pinpoint a child’s developmental gaps, thereby offering a clearer picture of which skills need the most attention. By mastering basic skill sets first, the child will gain the foundation he or she needs before the child is ready to interact with peers in more free-form social settings.

In general, there is an order in which core social skills are typically mastered:

  1. Social referencing: The child will look at the speaker when spoken to or respond to his or her name
  2. Parallel play: The child is still playing autonomously, but is comfortable being physically close to another peer
  3. Imitation of peers: The child begins to mimic certain behaviors of the peer
  4. Initiation of physical activity with peers: The child begins to initiate physical play or interaction with peers
  5. Requesting things from peers: The child begins to interact directly with the peer

The child should possess all of these skills before the parent or therapist starts teaching even such elemental social behaviors as polite manners, and certainly before teaching the more advanced conversational skills that will ultimately lead to sustained interactive play.

Imagine, for example, the child with autism whose well-intentioned parents have enrolled him on a soccer team. Many skills are required for this experience to be successful: The child must be able to understand the rules of the game, understand and react to the coach’s direction, and understand and predict the way other children on the field will react from moment to moment based on the placement of the ball, actions of the team and other nonverbal cues. And that doesn’t even begin to address such nebulous concepts as teamwork and sportsmanship!

If the parent’s goal is simply to expose the child to normal peer environments, this may be a great experience. But if the parent is constantly jumping in and instructing the child, it’s likely that very little actual learning is truly taking place. Worse, the parent runs the risk of the child freezing or even resisting future such interactions – making the entire experience not only rather pointless, but potentially harmful as well.


Keep social skills training fun

Above all, the experience of developing social skills needs to be fun for the child. While it’s important for the child to learn how to be polite and show manners, it’s also vital to establish the peer experience as enjoyable – as something the child will want to seek out on his or her own.

Keep in mind that, from the perspective of a child with autism, the prospect of interacting with another child is not always an attractive one. Other children are unpredictable; they knock things over, or they’re loud, or they don’t play the same way your child plays. So we have to make sure that we present social interaction in a positive light for the child.

One thing that is critical is to find the right peer. This child will ideally have a calm temperament, will be cooperative and also comfortable working with children on different developmental levels. The peer might be a typically developing child, or it might be another child on the autism spectrum. The important element is that the “peer” possess skills that your child does not have. So long as this is the case, your child will gain the opportunity to learn – which is, after all, the point.

Additionally, it’s important to find the right activities for the learning experience, so that we can target the specific skills we need to reinforce. Our goal is to structure a program that mimics a natural setting, but in a discrete environment where we can help the child be successful.

The bottom line is that, when it comes to teaching social skills to your child with autism, we need to expose the child to the right kind of experiences in order for any real learning to take place. Once your child has mastered certain important foundational skills, only then will your child be ready for more advanced social settings.

We can help you set up a plan for teaching social skills. Contact us today to set up a meeting!


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