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Children with Autism and Social Skills

Ed.D Educational Psychology & Special Education

Difficulty in interacting with other children and adults is a major challenge for children on the autism spectrum, and teaching these types of social skills is an important part of any intervention program. One therapy technique that is beneficial is joint attention training, which may be especially important to children who are not yet speaking.

The joint attention techniques teach children social skills and communication using eye contact, gestures, or other forms of communication to share the experience of an object or event with another person. It plays an important role in the development of language, play, and social interaction. Therefore, interventions to increase joint attention in children with autism are very beneficial.

In joint attention, sharing experiences comes before the development of social language and can anticipate how well a child develops those skills. Studies show that functional speech and language typically start about a year after a child masters joint attention techniques.

Pretend play is another important component of social skills. Studies show that children that were in joint attention and pretend play interventions had better social play interaction afterward than children who did not receive these inventions.

A good social skill intervention teaches children how to respond to friendly approaches from other children and adults, initiate social interactions, and minimize stereotypical behavior. it also teaches them how to use and manage a broad variety of social skills. A standard therapy session may teach children something as basic as how to make eye contact or something more challenging like how to invite a friend over to play. Social skills training can take many different forms. Sessions are usually taught by speech therapists, occupational therapists, or psychologists, using a variety of methods such as storytelling, visual cueing games, or role-playing.

While taking your child to these interventions is important, family plays an essential role in daily interactions that can teach joint attention techniques and social communication. These interactions can be easily integrated into the child's daily activities and should begin even before a diagnosis is made. It's also imperative for the child to have a lot of different opportunities to engage with children with typical development.

Encouraging Social Skills

Most children- and adults as well, take their social skills for granted. Early on they understand how to enter into a playgroup and join in with other children and play and interact. They eventually understand how to read body language and facial expressions. However, for a child on the autism spectrum, such fundamental skills can be a challenge and many seem like an unachievable task.

For children on the spectrum, social skills need to be taught regularly and consistently. . It's important to understand, just because a child doesn't interact with their peers doesn't mean the desire isn't there. They may just lack the skills that allow for social engagement.

Below are some activities to help your child develop social engagement skills:

  • Play games that teach social skills, facial expressions, and body language. You can watch a video with the volume turned off and pause the video and ask your child how the characters are feeling or what they think they are saying, then turn the volume back on and see if their guesses were correct. Games like "Picture Charades" also can be extremely useful.

  • Provide direct instruction on what your child should say or do. Children with autism need clear and concise information. As you are demonstrating specific skills, say out loud what they could say or do in different situations.

  • Mind reading games can help children with autism see the perspective of others. Looking at pictures of different people and situations you can ask your child to describe the thoughts or feelings of the people in the pictures.

  • Act out and practice difficult social situations. You can start off by using scripts as your child's skills improve and they become more confident let them improvise and figure out what they would say or do in different situations.

  • Use social stories to teach your child how to socialize. Read them books that show socialization amongst the characters You may even ask them what they think happened next or afterward.

  • Let your child spend time with typical developing children. When children with autism interact with neuro-typical children, they tend to pick up more social skills. Make sure that the chidren you chose for play dates will understand your child's needs and be kind to them.

  • Teach your child conversational listening skills. Children with autism need to learn the importance of listening, but also why it's important to let the other person know they are listening. Encourage your child to use acknowledging comments such as really, or wow, they should also be inspired to nod their head when in conversation so that the other person knows they are listening.

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