Guest post by Emily Ansell Elfer, BA Hons, Dip.
Most of us want to feel a sense of belonging in this world. We want to be loved, we want to have friends, and we want to find common ground with others. Many of us also feel nervous in new environments, meeting new people, and in unknown social situations.
For people on the autism spectrum, though, all of the above is multiplied. Just like neurotypical people, many autistic individuals have strong social desires, but, for them, navigating the road to social acceptance can be so overwhelming it’s difficult to know where to start.
As well as challenges around reading social cues and understanding context, the below autism spectrum disorder symptoms can all impact social skills and contribute to difficulty in social situations.
- Delays in speech development
- Difficulty interpreting body language
- Repetitive behavior (verbal and physical)
- Overwhelming sensory inputs
- Difficulty recognizing the feelings of others
- Trouble understanding sarcasm, jokes, or teasing
- Giving unexpected responses to questions
Of course, every person with autism is different, and not everyone will have all of these symptoms, but many will present a combination of these traits and struggle to some extent.
“Almost all autistic people find it hard to make and keep friends. Most of us struggle to understand body language and to pick up subtle social cues. We tend to be literal, to speak our minds, and to find sarcasm confusing. Many of us also suffer from debilitating social anxiety, making us appear unfriendly, distant, and aloof. We’re also sometimes perceived as being odd and eccentric,” says autistic advocate and Autism Parenting Magazine contributor Siena Castellon.
So, the long-held assumption that people with autism lack interest in social interactions is largely a misconception. But what does this mean? It means there are many lonely neurodivergent individuals in the world who need help and support to achieve the acceptance they deserve.
Helpful social skills for people with ASD
Teaching autistic children the following skills at an early age might help them on their journey to making friends and lasting relationships:
- Play skills (sharing, taking turns, pretend play)
- Conversation skills (picking what to talk about or body language to use)
- Emotional skills (managing and knowing what others feel)
- Problem-solving skills (dealing with conflicts in social setups)
Teaching these skills can help children with ASD grow confidence, create friendships, and get along well with people around them. Unfortunately, there are many “social norms” expected by society, so learning what type of behavior is expected in a given social situation can be really beneficial. Of course, educating neurotypical people about the differences in neurodivergent individuals can also help create more acceptance and understanding of social differences.
Teaching social skills to children with autism
The process of teaching social skills to people with autism can be difficult. Many will need to be supported from an early age in order to gain a good grasp. With this in mind, let’s build on some of the ideas above and look at strategies for helping children with autism learn social skills.
Role-play can help children learn anticipated and unanticipated behaviors in certain scenarios. For instance, if a child is going to school for the first time, you could act out a role-play to help them practice what will happen on their first day.
Social stories can help explain more about social practices as they illustrate “appropriate” behavior when interacting with others. Through social stories, children can learn to control their emotions, as well as ways to work with others to solve problems.
Interaction with other people
Of course, children with ASD can also learn social skills through watching and spending time with their neurotypical peers. Parents can schedule playdates or get their child involved in activities or clubs so their child spends plenty of time interacting with other children.
Videos can help children on the spectrum know what to expect when something happens. If they are worried about a certain social activity, like going to a get-together, you could watch a video together on what to expect when they arrive, like greeting people or shaking hands.
Playing games together
As well as participating in role-play, there are many games parents can play with their children to help them with interacting with others. This idea of “practice” playing can prepare them for playing with other children at school or on playdates.
Some ideas include:
- Kicking a ball back and forth
- Simon Says
- Hide and Seek
- Board games like Jenga or Connect Four
All of these games can help teach children about rules, taking turns, interacting with others, and being a good winner/loser!
This article outlines some of the difficulties people with autism have around social skills, as well as offering a possible social teaching pattern for families and therapists. Remember, not all approaches are appropriate for every child. What works for one child might not work for another and it is important to respect each child’s unique personality. Some people are more social than others, but with a bit of patience and encouragement, we can help each other along the way.
Did you enjoy this article? Learn more from Autism Parenting Magazine, the leading international publication for autism families.