Top tips for teaching social skills to children with and without autism

Top tips for  teaching social skills to children  with or without autismCommunication is so much more than just the words we say.  It is an incredibly complicated process; the rules change depending on the person or situation and half the time you are guessing!  Communication can break down in a number of different areas and sometimes even before we have started talking. It amazes me that more people don’t struggle with it.   Social skills is a term you read and hear all the time, but what do we mean by it?

The dictionary says it is “the personal skills needed for successful social communication and interaction”. That doesn’t sound too complicated does it?  In fact, this is a huge area that encompasses many different aspects of communication.  For example, eye contact, proximity, tone of voice, body positioning, turn taking, emotions – to name just a few. You can read more about this here in our earlier post on teaching complex communication.

We know that many children with ASD have difficulty with social skills, but so do other children.  If you have difficulty understanding language, you can also sometimes find it hard to understand social situations and rules.

How to help children learn social skills

So what can we do to help when a child finds these skills hard?  It can be much trickier to teach a child where to stand than how to say a word; the rules of the social world are often not straight forward.  However, there are many things we can do to help.

  1. Observe the child and work out exactly which bit is difficult for them.

Sometimes it can be very obvious, the child always stands too close or shouts.  However, some children may just be quiet and you have to work out which bit they are finding hard – is it knowing when they can speak, or choosing the right thing to say?  Are they different in a 1:1 rather than in a group or in class? You have to pick apart the situation to find out exactly which element they are finding hard.  Then you can start showing them what to do.

  1. Acknowledge their feelings are genuine and give them a positive way to respond instead, rather than talking about the behaviour you don’t want.

This is very important.  Often what we see as a negative behaviour, such as kicking or pushing, happens as the child is upset or confused.  This is why we need to break down the situation including what happened before the incident.  John may have just kicked Harry really hard, which he shouldn’t have done, but had Harry just bumped into John or maybe said something that upset John.  We need to explain that its okay to feel cross, but that we don’t kick, we explain that we are cross, find a grown up to help or walk away.

Some children who find social skills tricky also have raised anxiety levels and this needs to be acknowledged and supported appropriately.  This may not always be obvious, but should be something that is explored.

  1. Explain what you expect in a certain situation.

Have you told them what to do?  I find myself saying this a lot!  Children who find social interaction difficult often don’t pick up the rules automatically and need it clearly explaining to them at an appropriate language level.  This may mean that with older children you can explain – Can you stand two steps away when you talk to someone so you aren’t too close? Many people don’t like standing too close to each other.  Or for a young child it may be as simple as repeating ‘no hitting’.  Always remember to praise the child when they remember something you have been working on.

  1. Use visual support even if you don’t think the child needs it.

There are some specific visual systems such as social stories and comic strip stories which work well for some children. There are set rules for writing and using social stories.  You can find out more about them here.  But it is important to remember, visual support can be a picture or words, but it can also be a sign or gesture just to help them remember.  I have sat in many assemblies and Christmas plays using Makaton from across the room to remind children to sit and look!  It is fantastic as it is discrete, but reminds them what to do. With older children, recording them and then getting them to comment on what they did well and what needs a little more work can be an effective way of helping them learn.

  1. Repeat, repeat, repeat.

As with any new skill, the child is going to need lots of opportunities to practice.  Initially, this maybe in a 1:1 or small group, where the child feels safe to learn and practice the new skill.  But after this it also means with different people in different situations to help the skill generalize.  Remember, the child may not pick these skills up automatically and will need reminding and praising.

  1. Talk through your thought processes and feelings.

As part of teaching a new social skill, it helps to explain why we do or say particular things, as this will increase the child’s understanding.  Why don’t you like someone talking really load in your ear, why don’t we tip on our chairs, why doesn’t everyone like being chased.  You will need to do this at an appropriate level for the child, but it will help them better understand how we make these decisions.

  1. Use real-life contexts as often as possible.

The best time to teach or practice a new social skill is at it happens.  You can of course talk through situations afterwards or predict situations that might happen, but the best way to learn is when you are in the situation.  I find the best times are on the playground and when children are lining up at school! You can often see a problem before it happens which means you can talk the child through it as it happens.  For example, I have worked with many children who find lining up difficult.  Lining up often means the end of something fun and indicates going back to lessons.  You are also suddenly standing very close to people and often being bumped into.  If you know the child finds this hard, make sure you tell them to leave space between them and the person in front, or they may need reminding to keep their hands together so they don’t fiddle with anything they shouldn’t! Then you can praise them when they get inside.

  1. Praise.

Nobody likes being corrected all the time and it won’t help them learn.  Always remember to praise when the child uses a new skill or does something well.

Many schools have programmes and groups that can help support social skills.  There are also systems such as buddy benches and monitors to help at play times.  It is worth asking at school to see what help they can offer and trying to work together to get the best results.

Elizabeth Gunner SpeechBlogUK

Elizabeth Gunner SpeechBlogUK

Speech & Language Therapist at Speech Blog UK
Elizabeth is a speech therapist working in the South-East of England and a regular columnist for Special Needs Jungle as well as one half of the SpeechBlogUK ladies.
Elizabeth Gunner SpeechBlogUK

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