Having worked with children with autism and developmental delays for over 15 years, I sometimes forget what typical development looks like. This became increasingly apparent to me after the birth of my second son. Learning social skills were so challenging for my son on the spectrum (e.g. pointing to share an experience, returning a social smile) while my second child acquired these skills so naturally. If I’m being honest, on some days I even felt disappointed if I missed my first son experiencing certain social experiences or milestones. I considered how his lack of social skills impacted our daily life and what I could do as a parent to help him improve or even overcome certain barriers. Therefore, I compiled a list of 5 ways to increase social skills for your child with autism that are easy and fun for any parent to do on a daily basis.
- Assess Your Child’s Interests: Every child gravitates towards different activities. While some little boys are into monster trucks and cars, others may enjoy dancing or reading books. Paying close attention to your child’s interests allows you to develop and implement creative and motivating activities to address social skills. For example, my son has recently been into “surprises,” so I created a grab bag game. I fill a bag with a ton of different motivating items from around our house (e.g. stickers, balls, pretend food) and we take turns closing our eyes and selecting an item out of the bag, screaming “surprise” when we pull out the item. Before we yell, “Surprise!” I wait for him to reference me. The game naturally targets waiting, taking turns, eye contact, and expressive identification. He responds so well during this game, I plan on implementing it during a play date to potentially generalize the aforementioned social skills to same-age peers.
- Utilize Visual Supports: Visual supports are highly encouraged for individuals on the spectrum because they assist with lack of social awareness and picking up on social cues. Visual supports can include, but are not limited to, drawings, photographs, clip art, and written words. Parents can easily incorporate visual supports in their child’s daily routine to increase social skills. For example, visuals can teach skills such as starting a conversation, asking a friend to play, and identifying how others feel. An easy-to-implement activity we used with my son was taking pictures of ourselves on the iPad making lots of different faces to help him recognize basic emotions. Another simple and fun visual that parents can create to teach social skills is cutting out a whole bunch of different social scenarios out of magazines (e.g. girl dropping her ice cream cone, boy falling off a bike) to create a Jeopardy-like game where their child has to identify how people feel during specific social situations.
- Write A Social Story: A social story is a written description of what to expect and how to respond during specific social situations. It is hypothesized that children with autism lack what’s called a “theory of mind” or the ability to understand someone else’s perspective or feelings. Social stories may help individuals on the spectrum better understand what another person may be thinking or feeling and how he/she is expected to respond in social situations. Parents can easily incorporate social stories on a regular basis. Examples of social story topics may include “how to act when a friend comes over to play”, “how to follow the rules to a game”, or “how to share toys.”
- Utilize Video Modeling: I touched on video modeling in one of my previous blogs, but I feel this strategy is significantly under utilized and can potentially be a very useful tool to teach social skills. Video modeling is a visual teaching strategy that includes having the learner watch a video of a socially appropriate behavior or skill and then imitating what is watched. Considering children with autism are typically visual learners, this can be a simple and effective method for parents to use regularly. Parents can video themselves, peers, or even their children demonstrating the social skill they are trying to teach, like how to respond to social questions, how to make eye contact, or how to take turns.
- Set Up Play Dates With Typical Peers: While setting up play dates with typical peers may sound like an arduous task for an autism parent, there are no better models for children with social deficits. There are numerous research studies on the effectiveness of utilizing typical peers to model and prompt social skills for children on the spectrum. For my son, going to a novel environment with several other children was way too overwhelming for him. Instead, I decided to set up play dates during his ABA sessions, with only one typical peer present, during which the therapists were able to target social skills in a controlled setting. As skill acquisition increases, the plan is to fade out the therapist and target skills as naturally as possible.
Hopefully one or more of these ideas will assist your child to respond more effectively with you, siblings, and friends.