Autism and Social Skills Development

School Community Tool Kit

Supporting social interaction is an important piece of the student’s educational plan. Student’s with autism often have the desire to interact with others, but do not have the skills to engage appropriately or may be overwhelmed by the process. Some students are painfully aware of their social deficits and will avoid interactions even though they desperately want to connect with others. Others will engage in attention seeking behavior to connect with others until they build the skills they need to interact. Social development represents a range of skills, including timing and attention, sensory integration and communication, that can be built and layered to improve social competence. Building competence will result in further interest and interaction.

Strategies to help with teaching social skills to students with autism:

  • Reinforce what the student does well socially - use behavior-specific praise (and concrete reinforcement if needed) to shape pro-social behavior.
  • Model social interaction, turn taking and reciprocity.
  • Teach imitation, motor as well as verbal.
  • Teach context clues and referencing those around you (for example, ‘if everyone else is standing, you should be too!’).
  • Break social skills into small component parts, and teach these skills through supported interactions. Use visuals as appropriate.
  • Celebrate strengths and use these to your advantage. Many students with autism have a good sense of humor, a love of or affinity for music, strong rote memorization skills, or a heightened sense of color or visual perspective. Use these to motivate interest in social interactions or give a student a chance to shine and be viewed as competent and interesting.
  • Identify peers who model strong social skills and pair the student with them. Provide peers with strategies for eliciting communication or other targeted objectives, but be careful not to turn the peer into a teacher strive to keep peer interactions as natural as possible.
  • Create small lunch groups, perhaps with structured activities or topic boxes. (The group to pulls a topic out of a box and discusses things related to this topic, such as ‘The most recent movie I saw was…’ This can be helpful for students who tend to talk about the same things all the time since it provides supports and motivation and the benefit of a visual reminder of what the topic is.)
  • Focus on social learning during activities that are not otherwise challenging for the child (for example, conversational turn-taking may not occur if a child with poor fine motor skills is being asked to converse while cutting.)
  • Support peers and student with structured social situations. Define expectations of behavior in advance. (For example, first teach the necessary skill, such as how to play Uno, in isolation, and then introduce it in a social setting with peers.)
  • Teach empathy and reciprocity. To engage in a social interaction, a person needs to be able to take another’s perspective and adjust the interaction accordingly. While their challenges may distort their expressions of empathy, people with autism often do have capacity for empathy. This can be taught by making a student aware - and providing appropriate vocabulary - through commentary and awareness of feelings, emotional states, recognition of others’ facial expressions and non verbal cues.
  • Use social narratives and social cartooning as tools in describing and defining social rules and expectations.

Read the full list and learn more about teaching students with autism in the Autism Speaks School Community Tool Kit.