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Impaired social functioning is a primary feature of autism. Though autism spectrum disorder affects everyone differently, young children may struggle to learn essential skills that allow them to foster connections. If your child has autism, they likely present deficits or delays when interacting with others or responding to social cues. That is why social skills training for children with autism is critical.

Acquiring these skills at a young age enables your child to recognize and understand different contexts, adjusting their behavior accordingly.

What Are Social Skills for Children With Autism?

Social skills are the customs and rules we use to interact and communicate. Starting in infancy, we naturally pick up cues from those around us. Examples of social skills for young children include:

  • Active listening
  • Understanding humor and nonverbal cues
  • Giving and receiving constructive feedback
  • Having social awareness
  • Using manners
  • Being patient
  • Asking for help
  • Playing, cooperating and talking with others

Why Are Social Skills Important for Kids?

These are usually much more challenging for children with autism to learn. In addition to a lack of social skills, kids with autism may experience repetitive and restrictive behaviors like body rocking or adherence to strict routines. Often, these make social interaction challenging for children and parents. Inadequate social skills in children with autism may also lead to:

  • Peer rejection
  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Poor academic achievement
  • Frustration or anger at being misunderstood

Humans are social animals. Learning these skills at a young age makes implementing them easier as your child gets older. If they're starting therapy or school, understanding social skills can help them avoid feeling frustrated in an unfamiliar situation. They can learn to ask for help, communicate their needs and make friends more easily.

Going out in public or taking your child somewhere unfamiliar can cause them intense stress and anxiety, which may even heighten problematic behaviors like aggression or meltdowns. Social skills development allows them to practice the cognitive and language abilities they need for conversation. It can also improve your child's quality of life by enhancing their understanding of the world.

How Does Autism Affect Social Skills?

Not all children with autism struggle with the same issues. However, people with autism spectrum disorder may experience deficits in several or all of the following social contexts:

  • Maintaining eye contact
  • Pointing at objects
  • Smiling
  • Demanding attention
  • Responding to their name
  • Seeking their parents
  • Using hand gestures
  • Making or maintaining friendships
  • Understanding other people's feelings and perspectives
  • Answering questions directly
  • Having a conversation
  • Understanding teasing or sarcasm
  • Progression in speech development
  • Repeating words
  • Taking turns or sharing
  • Following instructions
  • Interpreting body language
  • Dealing with conflict
  • Making decisions
  • Adjusting behavior to new environments
  • Responding to changes in plans or routines
  • Interpreting facial expressions
  • Expressing emotions appropriately

Strategies for Teaching Social Skills to Children With Autism and Anxiety

Helping your child become friendlier and more sociable can give them more confidence and independence. Let's look at some social skills activities for children with autism below.

1. Play Together

You can start small with something as simple as playing games together! Use your child's favorite game to act out social behaviors, like asking questions or using manners. Simon Says could be a fun option for your child that teaches them to follow instructions. Playing games together is also ideal for showing them how to wait their turn.

2. Observe Others

Children who are particularly anxious about social interactions may benefit from watching others perform social skills. If your child's anxiety makes it hard to go out in public, try watching videos at home. Look for videos of children with autism in different settings to prepare your child for what to expect in unfamiliar situations. While watching the video, you can point out positive behavior such as following instructions.

3. Role-Play

Most kids love to pretend and imagine stories or games. You can use role-playing to help your child practice appropriate behaviors and responses in a safe environment. This interactive strategy can  improve their ability to adapt to real-life social scenarios. Allow your child to practice communication by asking them what they did over the weekend or what their favorite TV show is. You can also role-play by telling your child to pretend you're a friend at school and see how they engage or play with you.

Role-playing real-life situations that cause anxiety can be helpful when your child encounters something unpleasant, such as losing their favorite toy or not liking what you cooked for dinner. Developing possible solutions to these imagined situations can help your child understand how to overcome them.

4. Use Visual Supports

Some children can benefit from visual tools to help them remember social skills. Flashcards, posters, drawings or pictures can help them recall social rules, routines and expectations. For instance, you might use picture cards of an ear to remind them to be an active listener. To help them communicate their emotions, you can use flashcards of facial expressions and ask them to identify the correct feeling.

5. Offer Praise and Positive Reinforcement

Children often learn to continue appropriate behavior through praise and encouragement. This positive reinforcement shows them they're doing a good job and can make them more relaxed in anxiety-inducing situations.

For example, you might say, “Thank you for cleaning up your toys like I asked!” or “Wow! You did a great job at waiting your turn.” Positive reinforcement can help kids with autism learn to follow directions without feeling shame or negativity for making a mistake. You can also use this tactic by rewarding them with their favorite game or toy when they've mastered a new social skill.

6. Try Social Skills Groups

An effective way to help your child build their social competencies is by joining other children with autism in a social skills group. These groups allow children to practice communicating, learn how to express emotions and interact with others in a structured way. Social skills groups are a supportive environment for all children who struggle to talk with others or make friends.

7. Tell Social Stories

You can use social stories to teach social norms and help your child practice communicating in different situations. These stories are simple, step-by-step narratives you tell your child that make it easy to understand how to behave in various scenarios.

They should have a specific goal and target certain behaviors. Using simple, encouraging words is best to help your child follow along. For example, you might use social stories to explain how your child should act when meeting a new friend in school.

  • Children make friends at school.
  • I can talk to the other children in my class.
  • When speaking to someone, I need to be near them.
  • If I want to talk to someone, I can walk up to them and smile or say their name.
  • I will wait until the person looks at me to talk to them.
  • When my friend talks, I listen.

See How Premier Pediatric Therapy Can Help Your Child Learn Social Skills

Children with autism can benefit from therapy that teaches them how to apply social skills in various situations. At Premier Pediatric Therapy, we know how meaningful it is for you to see your child flourish in every environment. Our at-home ABA and occupational therapy services aim to meet your child's needs and help them succeed. Our dedicated child behavioral therapists would love to work with you to find a comprehensive treatment that encourages your child to blossom.

Request An Appointment

We'll also help you implement social skills training at home to improve your daily routines and enhance your child's quality of life. If you want to learn more about our services, request an appointment today!