Social Skills Training for Autism, Explained
One of the main characteristics of autism is difficulty with social interactions and social communications. Social skills training (SST) is an evidence-based behavioral therapy intervention that can help teach social skills and create a better understanding of social interactions, which can improve the quality of life for those with autism.
SST is one of the most regularly applied interventions to help manage social issues in people diagnosed with autism. In addition to being part of therapeutic intervention, it can also be provided in a group setting guided by a trained professional.
Basics of Social Skills Training
People with autism regularly experience social and communication difficulties, and SST can help.
SST can help teach a person the necessary skills to engage with their peers, family members, at school, and in the workplace. It can help a child understand how to relate to and play with other children as well as teach them the appropriate behaviors for a variety of situations. Adults can benefit from SST in learning tools and skills for the workplace and for managing relationships.
SST uses various methods to help teach social skills based on the age and needs of the person receiving it. Examples include:
- Use of written or visual materials. Scripts and social stories can be a method of visually showing children what social interactions look like and appropriate ways to connect to others. Comic strips are easier for a child with autism to process and understand.
- Video modeling. With this method, children watch a video of a social interaction and then are asked to perform the modeled skill right away. Computer and other technological interventions can be used in this way as well.
- Peer mentoring. People of the same age without a diagnosis of autism are trained to be peer tutors who can work with students with autism in a classroom setting to help model appropriate social behaviors and interactions.
- Play. Children often learn by play, and a therapist can help facilitate activities through play that help teach social skills and appropriate interactions. Toys and games can be tools for learning social skills and expected behaviors.
- Role-playing. Role-playing is a common way to help children learn about expected behavior and how to interact socially. A therapist can help walk a child through a hypothetical situation to help prepare them for future interactions.
- Group sessions. SST groups can help peers learn how to socialize in a controlled environment. These groups are especially beneficial for older children and adults, providing safe social interactions with a trained facilitator.
Social skills training is specific to each individual and can be included in personal behavioral therapy sessions such as applied behavior analysis (ABA) or cognitive behavior therapy (CBT), on its own, or in a group setting.
Benefits of SST With Autism
SST can help people with autism feel more connected socially, which can aid in overall happiness. Social skills training groups have shown that young adults who go through structured group SST programs show a greater frequency of engaging socially with peers and improvements in social skills that last beyond the completion of the program.
For people with autism, it is not easy to create a social “map” about how to act in social situations or with peers, and social skills training can help teach these skills. SST can help a person with autism improve in the following areas:
- Appropriate eye contact
- How to read facial expressions and body language in others
- Initiate and engage in back-and-forth conversations
- Appropriate behavior in social and other settings
- Understanding emotions in self and others
Social skills training will be different depending on the age of the person. For instance, SST can help teach toddlers and young children how to take turns and wait for their turn while adolescents and young adults, SST can teach appropriate workplace behavior and how to maintain friendships. SST is entirely customizable.
Expectations for SST
SST can be offered in a variety of settings and by a host of different professionals including:
- Speech and language pathologist (SLP).
- Occupational therapist.
- Special education teacher.
- School psychologists.
- Behavioral therapists.
- General education or PE teacher.
Professionals often include SST in therapy sessions as part of an overall treatment plan. They can also offer it as a standalone program and in group settings and will include the following aspects:
- Improving learning, language, and cognitive skills
- Direct instruction
- Ability to practice social skills in realistic situations
- Sensory integration
- Improving focus, timing, and attention
- Learning social behaviors that help with relationships and general happiness
Social skills training should be structured and predictable and broken down into concrete actions a person can understand and learn. These concepts are often abstract, and they need to be laid out so someone with autism can better grasp them. Language should be simple, and there should be ample practice time using a variety of methods.
Goals need to be measurable and attainable as well as relevant. The program should also evolve and grow with the person. Skills should be expanded upon as they are learned and mastered. Overall, SST should help to enhance self-esteem.
How to Get SST
To enroll in social skills training, check with your local providers. It is likely that SST is already a component of your child’s occupational therapy, speech therapy, or behavioral therapy model such as ABA. SST is regularly an aspect of school-based autism interventions.
For specific social skills training groups, your local medical and mental health providers and professionals can be great resources for finding local groups or practitioners. The Autism Society also provides information and a national helpline with resources for families and individuals with autism.
SST should be used as part of a complete treatment program in conjunction with other therapeutic techniques. It can be highly beneficial for learning and practicing social skills when used in tandem with behavioral therapies such as ABA. The level of intervention needed will depend on the person.
SST is most commonly used with individuals diagnosed with autism who are considered high functioning. It can be beneficial for people of all ages from preschool through adulthood; however, SST is often extremely beneficial for adolescents and young adults with autism. SST can enhance self-awareness as well as relationship skills.
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Adults with Autism Spectrum Disorder: The UCLA PEERS
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Social Skills and Autism. Autism Speaks.
Autism Society. Autism Society.
Social Skills Interventions: Getting to the Core of Autism. (February 2011). Interactive Autism Network (IAN).