As a developmental disorder, autism impacts a child’s ability to interact socially and exhibit appropriate behaviors. This can hinder social skills and interfere with positive peer relationships.
Parents can help to improve social skills in autistic children in these five ways:
- Reinforce positive behavior and celebrate strengths.
- Model and practice desired behaviors.
- Provide structured social interactions.
- Talk through possible social scenarios and use visual aids.
- Set the environment for success.
As part of therapy, autistic children can acquire coping skills and techniques that boost their social skills. Therapy can also offer support for both the parent and child to learn social skills and how to improve upon them at home. Parents can then help children to transfer the skills learned at home to public settings like school.
All this work at home and in therapy sessions can translate into substantial social improvements for autistic children.
Autism’s Impact on Social Skills
Autism is a developmental disorder that can impact the way a person communicates, interacts with the world around them, and manages emotions.
Social skills are formed through regular interactions with people. Since children with autism have a hard time understanding and reading others, social skills often need to be taught differently.
The CDC publishes that symptoms of autism related to social skills and interactions include:
- An inability to “read” others.
- Difficulties with back-and-forth conversations and interactions.
- Poor nonverbal communication skills and behaviors, and difficulty understanding these cues in other people.
- Trouble adjusting behaviors to the situation, often resulting in inappropriate behaviors.
- Lack of interest in peers.
- No desire for imaginary or collaborative play.
- Inflexibility with routines and schedules.
- Sensory sensitivities.
- Difficulty responding to social interactions or initiating them.
Autism is a spectrum disorder, which means it can have varying degrees of severity and disability.
Some children are high-functioning. They are able to mask autism symptoms until social pressures build and become too vast for them. This often coincides with entering a highly social environment like school.
Others with autism regress in language and motor skills. Developmental delays are evident as early as 6 months old, but they may not present until later in toddlerhood. Autism can be diagnosed as early as 18 months, though it is most often diagnosed around age 3.
Social skills can be limited or different in a child with autism regardless of the severity of the disorder. Generally, a higher degree of disability means a more significant impact on behavior, communication skills, and social interactions.
How to Boost Social Skills in Autistic Children
If your child has limited social skills, it doesn’t mean they are destined to live this way for the rest of their life.
Autistic children can benefit greatly from therapy, particularly applied behavior analysis (ABA) therapy, which is considered the ideal treatment for autism. If a child’s social skills are further limited by communication issues, such as speech issues, speech therapy may also be recommended.
Parents are key to a child’s success. With conscious efforts to implement the lessons learned in therapy on a regular basis and positive reinforcement, parents can help their children better communicate with the world around them.
Oftentimes, autistic children can see substantial improvements in their social skills due to therapy and parental work at home.
Here are five ways to improve your child’s social skills:
1. Reinforce Positive Behavior & Celebrate Strengths
Positive reinforcement has long been a method to reward good behaviors in a nonpunitive way in order to encourage them. This can be especially effective for autistic children.
Often, autistic children might not understand what is expected of them and why. By offering praise and reinforcement for prosocial behaviors, parents and teachers can help to shape behavior and cultivate desired social skills.
To reinforce positive behaviors and social skills:
- Find a reinforcer that works. It can be edible, visual, tangible, verbal, an activity, or social attention.
- Deliver the reinforcement as soon as possible after the desired behavior — within 5 seconds is best.
- Vary the reinforcers. This can keep things interesting and keep the child engaged longer.
- Change out reinforcers as needed. If one reinforcement technique or reinforcer is not working as well as it has in the past, consider switching it up.
- Slowly back down on using reinforcers after you have achieved success with a particular behavior. Over time, you want to get to a point where the behavior is set, and you no longer need to reinforce it.
- Be patient. Positive behavior changes do not occur overnight. They take time, effort, and practice.
To further enhance social skills, capitalize on the child’s strengths. Autistic children often have a particular area of interest or expertise. Highlighting this in a social setting can help autistic children find a way to connect socially. Since they feel more comfortable talking about this area of interest, it can take away some of the initial awkwardness of the social interaction.
2. Model & Practice Desired Behaviors
All children learn behaviors by watching. They often see a behavior and mimic it. Parents can teach children how to behave in social situations by showing them how.
With autistic children, parents will typically need to take this a step further. Autistic children often do not understand what they are witnessing, so they need help interpreting the behavior. If parents break down the social interaction and explain it to them, autistic children can get a better grasp on learning these skills.
Roleplaying can be a great way to help autistic children practice social skills and interactions. Parents can design a situation and then walk through it with the child ahead of time to help them understand what to expect and how to socialize appropriately.
Roleplaying can also offer your child the chance to experiment and learn in a low-risk situation. You are right there to offer suggestions and corrections as needed without the stress of a public environment.
When roleplaying, take turns. If you are roleplaying a particular peer-to-peer interaction, it can be beneficial for the autistic child to play the role of their peer. This can help them gain a better understanding of others and the interaction in general. You will need to talk them through how their peer may be feeling in this situation.
Playing games together at home can help autistic children learn how to take turns, follow the rules, and be a good sport. While playing the game, observe your child’s behavior and talk them through what to expect and what is expected of them.
Examples of simple games that can help with social skills include:
- Passing a ball back and forth.
- Simon Says.
- Simple card and board games.
- Hide and seek.
3. Provide Structured Social Interactions
Children with autism appreciate structure and stability. Change can be difficult. Routines are important.
As a result, it can be easier to teach new skills and enhance social skills when working within a structure that is expected. Parents can set up small, structured social interactions to work on social skills before children need to carry these skills into a larger setting, such as a classroom.
During these structured interactions, lay out the expectations clearly up front, so everyone knows what behaviors are anticipated and expected of them. Skills can be taught ahead of time at home and then translated into small group settings with one or two peers initially.
These high levels of structure in early interactions can actually encourage an autistic child to be more flexible. They learn how to interact and evolve within the set parameters, and they feel more comfortable in their actions. This gradually allows them to be more flexible in situations with less structure.
4. Talk Through Possible Social Scenarios & Use Visual Aids
Prepping an autistic child for social situations is extremely important. These conversations help your child to learn about the world around them and build the tools to interact well in social situations.
Talk to your child about potential social situations and events, and how to respond appropriately. It is helpful to offer a visual representation, such as:
A visual representation of peer interactions can help autistic children learn what to expect and give them additional resources to model. Verbalize what is happening in these scenes to reinforce accepted social skills and expected behaviors.
Social coaching is a form of conversation and visual representation that involves helping the child learn to become more aware of their specific actions and master the social challenges that autism presents. Social coaching can include videotaping interactions and walking through them with the child later. As you watch the videos, identify certain behaviors and offer feedback.
5. Set the Environment for Success
Autistic children thrive on structure and routine. They often have sensory issues, such as sensitivity to loud noises or bright lights.
Consider both these points when working with your child on social interactions. During teaching moments, keep outside distractions to a minimum. Choose times when your child is most relaxed and apt to want to work with you.
Keep room lights dimmed and minimize loud noises to promote learning. Make sure your child is not hungry or overly tired when trying to teach something new. Social communication is most effective when offered in a comfortable setting.
Focus on only teaching the specific social skill. It can be difficult for an autistic child to absorb a social lesson if they are focused on something else as well.
Improvements Take Time
Autistic children can experience significant gains in social skills, but they don’t happen immediately. Be consistent with therapy and the lessons you reinforce at home. Over time, you’ll see improvement.
- What Is Autism Spectrum Disorder? (March 2020). Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
- Diagnostic Criteria. (August 2019). Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
- Screening and Diagnosis of Autism Spectrum Disorder. (March 2020). Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
- Strategies for Supporting Social Skill Development. (September 2018). Autism Speaks.
- Helping Your Child With Autism Improve Social Skills. (June 2017). Psychology Today.
- Using Structure to Help Autistic Kids Build Flexibility. (March 2014). Psychology Today.
- Ask the Experts: 5 Structured Social Coaching Tips for Parents and Caregivers of Children With Autism. (May 2018). Autism Society.
- Autism Social Skills: How to Enhance Social Interaction. Autism Parenting Magazine.