You know the song “Make new friends but keep the old. One is silver and the other is gold?” Friends are a great treasure…especially during childhood. For kids with autism friendship can be a real struggle.
A parent of one of my former clients shared with me that one of her biggest pain points in getting an ASD diagnosis is realizing her son would not have the carefreeness of friends. You know, sharing secrets, getting messy, going on adventures, laughing, playing, and making memories. Does this strike a chord with you?
Peer relationships may be difficult for kids with special needs but it doesn’t mean children are not capable of making friends. With support, teaching and practice your youngster can have meaningful friendships with other kids.
Today I will share with you some practical tips for teaching social skills to kids with autism so that they can have a bff or two.
Why Are Social Skills Hard?
Before we get into the practical tips it’s good to understand social interactions from your kid’s perspective so we know how to best help them form friendships.
Dysfunction with social interactions and communication are some of the main characteristics for making an ASD diagnosis. These include the following categories:
- Sensory sensitivities and issues with self-regulation
- Speech delays for verbal communication
- Inability to pick up on non-verbal cues and understanding perspective
- Being stuck on a routine or repetitive behavior
For a child with autism this can be illustrated with the following examples:
- Child is sensitive to loud sounds or crowds and avoids kid friendly places
- Child does not have the verbal output to go up to a peer and say “can you play with me?”
- When a child offers a toy to a kid with autism, the autistic kid doesn’t understand that to be a sharing gesture
- Child only wants to line up cars in a line rather than play with them and is not open to other ideas
Not knowing what to say or how to say things along with not understanding how to behave or play can be overwhelming and stressful! But there is help! Knowing where the struggles are is your starting point to teaching social skills.
You might be feeling overwhelmed with knowing how to best help and teach your child social skills and how to interact with others. Keeping things simple and practical is the best approach when it comes to working with your child. Here are other tips:
- Social skills training is a journey and not a lesson to be grasped in one day
- Regular practice and repetition over time will be your best tool
- What area(s) does your child struggle with most? Start working in that area
- What does your child do well? Build up those strengths
- Work on skills in a safe space, like home before venturing out in the community
- Pick a time of day that is good for your child when s/he is not tired, hungry to practice skills
Teaching Social Skills
To keep things practical and simple when it comes to teaching social skills break down skills into bite size pieces. It may be tempting to think “we’re going to do anything and everything to learn how to make friends!”
Following the categories from above here are ideas to teach social skills in each area:
- Work on skills that teach self-regulation so your child gets the sensory input s/he needs to interact with others
- Practice social skills with regulation activities: Take turns swinging in a swing, play gross motor games, role-play while jumping on a trampoline
- Bring along self-regulation tools (like a calming kit) while out in social situations
- If needed seek guidance from a Speech Therapist to work on speech delays
- Write social stories about how to interact with peers
- During pretend play set-up simple conversation scenarios, like how to greet a person, how to ask friends to play, how to ask for a turn
- Write conversation cue cards about simple conversations to have with a friend like favorite sport, hobbies, school,
- Work on learning and understanding emotions with feelings flashcards
- Write social stories on how read facial expressions and feelings
- Make faces with one another and talk about feeling that go with different faces
Routines And Repetitive Behavior
- Model ways to expand repetitive play themes
- Create a visual schedule on how to play with toys. For example things to do with blocks: stack into a tower, make a wall, build up and knock down
- Pretend to be a peer that interferes with routine and walk child through the stressors of changing routine and give them calming strategies
- Point out social interactions while watching a favorite show or movie
- Read stories about friendship and point out things in the pictures that show social skills
- Play games to practice turn-taking, winning and losing
- If siblings are around ask them to join
- Practice basic skills like greetings, initiating simple conversations, saying good-bye and respecting personal space
Expanding Social Skills
There are many things you and your child can do to put social skills into practice. When you believe your child is ready for playing with a friend you can try out:
- Arrange a play-date with a familiar peer and facilitate play-time at with activities that your child likes. Create a visual schedule and have an end-time. Keep play sesion short.
- Set-up practice session with a peer model with a child who is older. Older child can model desired behavior and interactions. Coach peer model on what to say or do ahead of time.
- Have your child attend a social skills group that is facilitated by teachers or therapists. Inquire at school or local therapy clinic. Many locations offer social skills groups that work on peer interactions in a small group setting.
- Ask teachers to work on social skills with fellow classmates.
Your child is very capable of learning the social skills needed to make new friends With your support and guidance you can help them find meaningful friendships. Follow these practical tips for teaching social skills will get you one step closer to meeting those BFF’s!
Elizabeth Purpero is a licensed school counselor and licensed professional counselor-in-training. She has her master’s in counseling psychology. Elizabeth has worked as an autism therapist with children and teens. During her career, she has worked in intensive at-home therapy programs utilizing ABA and play therapy along with OT and speech therapy techniques. She has also worked as a mental health therapist helping clients address their mental health issues as it relates to autism. Elizabeth’s background working with the autism community has greatly helped her work with students in schools too. She has helped teachers implement effective strategies, create goals for IEP’s and make classrooms more sensory-friendly. Mark Twain once said, “Write what you know about,” and Elizabeth enjoys writing about autism-related topics and providing additional resources to help those impacted by autism.