Social Skills and Autism
Many children and adults on the autism spectrum need help in learning how to act in different types of social situations. They often have the desire to interact with others, but may not know how to engage friends or may be overwhelmed by the idea of new experiences.
Building up social skills with practice can help enhance participation in the community and support outcomes like happiness and friendships. We have compiled social skills tips and information from experts, teachers, and families, along with useful tools to help enhance opportunities to be part of the community.
What Are Social Skills?
Social skills are the rules, customs, and abilities that guide our interactions with other people and the world around us. In general, people tend to “pick up” social skills in the same way they learn language skills: naturally and easily. Over time they build a social “map” of how to in act in situations and with others.
For people with autism it can be harder to learn and build up these skills, forcing them to guess what the social "map" should look like.
Social skills development for people with autism involves:
- Direct or explicit instruction and "teachable moments" with practice in realistic settings
- Focus on timing and attention
- Support for enhancing communication and sensory integration
- Learning behaviors that predict important social outcomes like friendship and happiness
- A way to build up cognitive and language skills
Who Can Teach Social Skills?
There are many social skills to learn, so many different people will teach them in different settings - at home, school, and in the community. A special education teacher, speech pathologist, or other clinician may lead a “social skills group” that combines direct, explicit instruction with opportunities to practice and generalize these skills in more natural environments. This means real life practice with peers! Other professionals that support social skills include:
- occupational therapists
- behavioral therapists
- school psychologists
- general education teachers
- health and PE teachers
- many other direct care staff
Social Skills Groups
Social skills groups offer an opportunity for people with autism of all ages to practice their social skills with each other and/or typical peers on a regular basis. Many groups follow commercially available social skills curricula. A review of five studies on social skills groups by researchers at the University of Utah and the U.C. Davis MIND Institute helped identify what makes an effective social skills group.
Effective Social Skills groups should*:
- Provide structure and predictability
- Break down abstract social concepts into concrete actions
- Simplify language and group children by language level
- Work in pairs or groups with cooperation and partnership encouraged
- Provide multiple and varied learning opportunities
- Foster self-awareness and self-esteem
- Provide opportunities for practice so that skills are used beyond the group in real life settings
*Excerpted from Social Skills Interventions: Getting to the Core of Autism developed for the Interactive Autism Network (IAN) by Teresa j. Fodden and Connie Anderson, Ph.D.
A Promising Model
The PEERS program at UCLA, which stands for Program for the Education and Enrichment of Relational Skills, is a 16 week-long program that teaches social skills, including tips on dating. Read more about the program:
- Social skills classes produce lasting benefits for adults with autism
- This program is teaching social skills to young adults with autism
Tips from Our Community
We asked Autism Speaks families for tips and ideas on social skill building. One mom shared,
My son plays social therapy games at a local social skill group where they let him practice with his peers. He has a chance to ask 'why' certain social skills are important in a safe and supportive space.
Read more social skills improvement ideas from our community here.
Search our Directory to find Social Skills programs in your community.
Using Personalized Teaching Stories
People with autism benefit from having information presented visually, such as a chart, a booklet, or an electronic device. Using personalized teaching stories provides a visual aid for people with autism to know what to expect in different situations and to learn what is expected of them in these situations.
Through pictures and simple language, these stories can make everyday social situations more predictable for people with autism, as well as giving them strategies for navigating these situations more effectively.
Autism Speaks partnered with the University of Washington READI Lab and Microsoft Office to provide this series of personalized templates for parents and therapists to customize to explain social situations to people with autism.
Personalize the templates with your own photos to explain what to expect and how to act in a variety of everyday situations. Personalized Stories:
- Going to a Restaurant
Help your child know what to expect when they go to a restaurant.
- Going to the Store
Help explain what to expect when your family goes to the store to your child.
- Handling Bullying
Help explain how to handle bullying to your child.
- Play Date
Help explain what to expect on a play date to your child.
- Potty Training
Help explain how to use the potty to your child.
- Taking Turns
Help explain the process of taking turns to your child.
Open the Doors to Your Community
Participation in the community can be enhanced through improvement in the social skills of people with autism.
Use our Directory to search for programs to practice social skills in your community.
Our Leading the Way: Autism-Friendly Youth Organizations guide can help community organizations make their programs more inclusive of children and young adults with autism.
Strategies for Supporting Social Skill Development for teachers
- Build Social Skills with 10 Inclusion Tips for Sports and Recreation