Social skills are sometimes the most complex skills our children will learn. They include everything from communication, problem-solving, decision making, self-management, and peer relations abilities that allow someone to initiate, build, and maintain positive social relationships with others. Having or not-having social behavior can interfere with friendship, adult-child relationships, learning, teaching, and the classroom’s orchestration and climate. And often times after tackling complex behaviors like tantrums or aggression, an individual can still have a large skill to overcome if they haven’t practiced certain social skills. Social competence is linked to peer acceptance, teacher acceptance, success of inclusion efforts with students with disabilities, and post school success. Before providing strategies, you should be aware of the different types of social interactions that exist. Take a moment to determine which type of interaction your child is most comfortable with: 

Types of Social Interactions from least interactive to most interactive:

  • Observing – A child can just observe another peer play, but not join in, or just take comfort in watching them play by themselves.
  • Parallel Play – A child can play in close proximity to another child, but not engage with them, or not even be aware that they are there. This looks just like it sounds like, They are playing parallel to each other, but not engaging.  
  • Responding to initiations of peers – Some children can play independently but struggle with initiation, and they may only begin to socialize when their peer asks them to play by saying things like “can I play with that?” or “do you want to color with me?”
  • Cooperative Play – This refers to solving a problem with a peer. E.g. “Let’s find a way to keep the dragons off of the lava!” – The two children have to find a way to accomplish a goal together. This may include problem-solving, reciprocal conversation, imaginative play. Research has shown that this is a large way in which children learn, because they are getting feedback from peers about other ways to think about problems and challenges. 
  • Initiating with peers – This includes a child walking up to another child and asking them to join them. This can range from just grabbing their hand and pulling them towards their game, it can also include just “jumping right in!” When you or I think about initiating as an adult it might look a little differently. For children, often times the initiation can be unspoken or less formal than what we might expect. If your child can walk up to a child and make eye contact, tap them on the shoulder, or say theri name, this is a great start!

There are a number of ways to do Social Skills Training to your special needs child:

  1. Do Pre-Teaching! Before ever going out into the community, you can work on certain basics before placing your child in a more stressful situation. This is sometime also known as priming and it can look something like this. Walk into the room your child is in and say “hello!” If he doesn’t respond, you can prompt him (depending on his level of language by modeling the language, writing it on a card, or showing him a video of what saying hello looks like) have him say hello when you enter. You can also practice with goodbye’s. This is a great way to help him or her enter a room with style! You can have him practice asking if he can have a toy, before giving it to him or her. This is great practice before they have to interact with peers who might not be too happy if someone just takes a toy without asking.   
  2. Spend more time in your community! Even though it’s a bit scary sometimes, children can learn so much from the people around them. Whether it’s walking around the neighborhood and having him say hello to people that pass by, or going to the grocery store and asking a worker where to find mustard, all of these are ways to practice in a non-threatening environment. Most people would be happy to wait a few seconds to help your kiddo learn!
  3. Find a local Social Skills Training Group! This is probably the quickest way to teach social skills. Many social skills training groups have qualified staff who can do a formal assessment and place your child in a group that is based on their actual social age. Even if your kiddo might be a math whiz, maybe he needs to be in a younger group for socializing. Don’t be discouraged if this happens. Remember that if your child is in a group that is too complicated, he or she may become discouraged about using their newly learned social skills. You want them to feel REINFORCED every time they socialize, and this may be more likely to happen in a peer group that meets their level. A few things to consider: inclusion is BEST. If you can find a social skills training group that allows members to bring typically developing siblings, this is ideal. You should also ask what their adult to student ratio is. There are mixed reviews on this, but in general, look for something with a 1:5 ratio. LASTLY, ask if they use a curriculum or measure progress. Some Social Skills Training Groups use parent report, some actually video tape the sessions and do a comparison after a few weeks. There are many ways to measure progress, but what you DO NOT want is a program that acts like a day-care or an after-school program in which they do not provide structured learning opportunities. This can teach your child that it’s okay to be among peers and retreat to the corner or go for extended time without engaging. Have more questions or need more support in finding something? Let us know!
  4. Computers & Technology! This can be a great way to interact socially in a socially appropriate manner. The most popular trend I have seen in the last few years is that individuals on the spectrum are texting with their family members. There is so much about this that makes me happy because it’s a way to communicate. And even though it might not be your preferred way, it’s a way that helps your kiddo tell you what they need and form a connection with you or others. There are a number of online forums for people on the spectrum such as Wrong Planet, that allows people on the spectrum to talk with each other from behind their computer screen. Embrace this form of social interaction, and be sure to encourage your child to engage with others on the spectrum in this way.

Once you determine which type of social interaction might be lacking, pick a target skill you’d like to work on with your child. These are diffrent types of Social Skills you can work on, adapted from Thomas McIntyre’s LDOnline Article.

More basic Social Skills

  • Saying Hello/Goodbye
  • Asking questions about someone else
  • Requesting an item they want to play with
  • saying please and thank you
  • dealing better with anger and frustration
  • asking questions appropriately
  • accepting responsibility for one’s own behavior
  • dealing with losing/frustration/making a mistake/insults in an appropriate manner (without yelling or physical aggression)
  • initiating a conversation with others
  • accepting “No” for an answer
  • joining a group activity already in progress
  • following directions
  • making friends
  • complimenting others
  • understanding the feelings of others (and accepting them as valid or OK)
  • compromising on issues
  • cooperating with peers
  • coping with taunts and verbal/physical threats/aggression from others
  • seeking attention in an appropriate manner
  • waiting one’s turn

More Complicated Social Skills

  • asking permission
  • avoiding fighting with others
  • interrupting others appropriately
  • showing sportsmanship
  • listening
  • following directions
  • respecting the opinions of others
  • accepting praise from others
  • apologizing for wrong doing
  • greeting others
  • familiar/family/friends
  • unfamiliar
  • adult
  • peers
  • same gender
  • different gender
  • younger

  1. Hi my name is Anisha, I have a 4 year old son name Alijah! I learned about this website from Instagram. If possible I can get more information and possibly toys, tools, strategies anything to help me with my son. He was diagnosed Dec 2014, I know absolutely nothing I don’t have much help with him so I do the best I can with the minimal sources I find online. Having a child with autism definitely is hard especially on your own. He is non verbal, his evaluation from the Matcus autism Center in Georgia suggested he needs ABA, OT, ST, and PT. I’ve been trying to get him a communication device that works for him. He gets very frustrated because he can’t communicate, he tries so hard. I just want to see my son do great and be great. So as I’ve said if you could give me any ideas of where or what kind of things I can get him or take him to help him I’d greatly appreciate it thank you.

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