Every parent just wants their child to make friends, succeed, and be happy. But for many parents of children with autism, these goals are more difficult to achieve, especially in social realms where their child may experience anxiety and struggle to make connections with others.
Is there a way to teach children with autism the skills they need to see social interaction in a positive light, rather than in the often negative, anxiety-invoking manner they typically experience? Fortunately, there are research-supported strategies for practicing social skills with your child that can be incorporated into your average day. These strategies can start with focusing on direct, simple social skills in very young children with Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD) and progress to more complex, indirect social skills, such as body language nuances or conflict resolution, as kids become more comfortable with the basics.
Strategy 1: Modeling (and Explaining) Social Interactions
Children often learn by watching and imitating those around them. As your child’s most accessible source of social learning, try to model appropriate social behavior for your child as often as possible. This modeling is important for all children to learn social skills, but kids with autism may not understand the social behavior they are observing without an accompanying verbal explanation. For this reason, take the time to explain social scenarios to your child. You may not be able to do this immediately after every social interaction you encounter, but when you can, take a moment to discuss it with them.
Describe what just happened and highlight the social behaviors they may struggle with, such as facial expressions, tone of voice, and body language, that were evident in the situation. When your child asks why you behaved in some way, explain the rationale behind your actions and offer for him to ask questions rather than giving a vague explanation or none at all. When adults model cooperative, prosocial behavior and explain the situation step-by-step, children are more able to engage with and initiate interactions with peers. For children with autism, the explanation part is key. They may not pick up on some of the nuances or strategies demonstrated in the modeled behavior without an additional verbal description.
Strategy 2: Talking through Social Scenarios
Rather than modeling behavior directly, you could present scenarios on paper that you can discuss and explore with your child. This way, you don’t need to wait for a real-life example to arise before tackling it together, preparing your child for future interactions.
Much like with modeling behaviors, a verbal description of the scenario should go along with the visual presentation of the situation, and you could even present answer options for how to respond from which your child can choose. Using the same premise to discuss social scenarios presented in comic strips, cartoons, movies, or other media your child encounters can also aid in your child’s understanding of social interactions. This strategy has been easily incorporated into daily routines by parents with children with ASD.
Strategy 3: Role-Play
If your child is struggling with a specific interaction with a peer, act it out and offer feedback on how they could approach the situation. Practice turn-taking by having him act as if he was the peer, as well as acting as himself. Point out differences in the behavior each of you displays in the role-play and reinforce socially appropriate responses for him.
Role-play can help kids apply skills garnered through the hypothetical situations you may have modeled, discussed, and navigated via conversations about social scenarios in real life. With role-play, your child can practice his skills in a low-risk environment with you before facing the problem head-on with a peer, giving him time to think through his reaction and choose the most prosocial response.
Strategy 4: Find a Parent Support System
As a parent of a child with ASD, much of the child’s outcomes depend on your patience and understanding of their social skill deficits, and your ability to work through those with your child. This is not easy. Research parent groups for children with autism or find a way to organize play dates between your child and others with ASD so you have people with whom you can discuss the difficulties. When social skills training for kids is coupled with interventions for parents that help them understand their child and teach them how to help their child manage social interaction, both the parent and the child have more positive outcomes.
By finding a support group, you can explore various strategies after discussing pros and cons with others who understand ASD and slowly build confidence to help your child conquer tricky situations. Support groups may be online, such as this Autism Moms group on Facebook, or in-person. They can be found simply by searching “parent of child with autism support group.”
Above All Else, Believe
Believe that your child with ASD is capable of learning these skills. If you don’t believe that there is potential for change, your efforts to teach new skills may not be fruitful. The ability to engage in social interactions and play predicts many other outcomes related to ASD, such as cognitive skills, self-esteem, regulating emotions, and motivation. We can mitigate the risk of developing issues in other areas by improving social confidence through the use of these strategies for building social skills.