Social skill deficits may be a large barrier for children with autism spectrum disorders in their future lives. Developing social skills — the ability to understand and use specific and general communication and interaction skills to develop interpersonal relationships — can be accomplished through group therapeutic interventions. But, even if you can find an adequate social skill group for your child, his or her learning experiences in that group will not apply to the real world without natural “real world” experiences.
So how can a parent or other caregiver help? Just like with any new skill, practice makes perfect. Make sure your child has opportunities to work on social skills with peers or siblings. Help your child join small group activities or set up play dates with other children with whom they can interact. Find a common ground that all the children involved may like. This can be the cement that holds the event together, even if the specific interactions are not occurring as desired. In the early stages of a child’s social skill learning, you (or an older sibling or friend) may have to hover a bit to help keep things rolling, but care must be taken to avoid being too present and potentially stopping the natural flow between the children.
Setting expectations and practicing before any event happens is always a good idea. Explain to your child the purpose of the event, what he or she is expected to do socially, and then practice the specific skills to see if they can carry out your expectations. For example, if you are hosting a holiday dinner, make sure that your child knows that he or she must speak to everyone there, at least to say “hello.” Also rehearse a few topics to discuss at dinner, and remind your child that they are expected to ‘chime in’ (even if you give them some pat answers before hand). After the event give the child feedback regarding how they did and ways that they can improve. Praise any and all attempts at being social descriptively so that they know what they did correctly. Finally you may want to give a tangible reward (such as a special outing, privilege or a “point” on their point system) for exemplary performance. Don’t save these strategies for just special occasions. Use the basic strategy above anytime that you would expect your child to interact with others. Remember, practice makes perfect!
Gary Carone, M.S., L.L.P., L.M.S.W., B.C.B.A.
Co-Executive Director of PsychSystems, a program of Starr Commonwealth