The ABCs of Social Skill Development
Encouraging children with autism spectrum disorder to socialize.
by Jennifer and Laurie Jacobs, MA, CCC-SLP
PARENTGUIDE News April 2007
When a child has an Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), you know how hard he or she
has to work to achieve academic success in school. But is this child given a
chance to practice social skills, which are also affected by ASD?
Children with ASD sometimes have a great deal of difficulty understanding social
behaviors and interactions, and these skills are usually not taught directly in
school. On the playground and other places at school, there are large amounts of
unstructured time that leave them to sink or swim in a complex social
They often have trouble:
.opening and closing a conversation.
.initiating peer interaction and joining play.
.decoding facial expressions and body language.
.observing and imitating appropriate social behavior in specific situations.
.predicting and understanding the emotions and reactions of others.
Children with ASD don't automatically acquire social skills that come to others
naturally through repeated exposure in social situations. Instead, they need to
be taught explicitly and given the opportunity to practice, practice, practice.
The first step is to identify the child's unique social skills deficit. Some
children may find it impossible to interact with peers one-on-one; others may
have difficulty in an informal group setting. A professional speech pathologist
or psychologist is critical in determining the child's specific difficulties.
Once the specific problems are determined, a customized program featuring
observation, modeling, rehearsal and reinforcement are the most effective
methods for them to learn and sustain long-term social skills.
Make Play Time Count
Parents and caregivers are encouraged to make the most of child-friendly play
time activities that allow children to teach and practice social skills. Here
are some easy, "low-tech" suggestions.
1. Scrapbooking, today's craze for young and old, is a fun activity through
which you can teach children about emotions. You can help a child with ASD
recognize the feelings and thoughts of others by creating an emotional
scrapbook, featuring magazine pictures and photographs that show people
participating in social situations while expressing their feelings. Talk with
the child about how the people in the pictures are feeling based on their facial
expressions and body language.
2. Fun books and board games, such as Do Watch Listen Say (Quill) and Boardmaker
(Mayer-Johnson), provide social skill development activities in workbook format
that are disguised as play. They encourage the development of skills essential
to social functioning, including reciprocity, imitation and conversation.
3. Charades is a fun game for young children. Have your child with ASD engage in
role-playing that involves acting out social interactions that he or she would
typically encounter in an unstructured school situation. For example, ask the
child to respond to a peer who has invited him to play kickball during recess.
Through this "game," the child can learn the proper social interaction.
4. Read-aloud stories, particularly those that are written in the first person
perspective of a child, can show how someone thinks and acts in different social
situations. For example, if the child has trouble on the swing set, a social
story might explore this situation in detail, introducing the concepts of taking
turns and asking a classmate to play. Difficult situations are expressed, and
the child can learn the correct way to act. For example, if the child in the
story says "It's hard to wait my turn when I want to ride on the swing now," you
can practice appropriate responses and actions with your child.
Electronics are Educational, Too
There are also "high-tech" methods for practicing social situations that
encourage skill development, improve skill performance and reduce ineffective
behaviors by allowing the child to learn through personal experiences. Because
they provide opportunities to pause and discuss information, to replay scenarios
for greater recall and understanding, and to repeat exercises as many times as
necessary, high-tech methods are typically very effective. Specific exercises
1. Voice-recording systems can help children with ASD to identify topic
maintenance, intonation and perseveration. When children are allowed to listen
to themselves speak, it is easier for them to understand and respond to the
specific difficulties they may have in communicating with peers.
2. Television programs and videos that feature dramatic emotions and social
scenarios can be effective in showing appropriate behavior for the child with
ASD. If a caregiver, educator or practitioner takes the time to discuss the
characters' actions and reactions with the child, age-appropriate television
shows and videos can be a cost-effective and risk-free method for analyzing
3. Social training software programs are appealing to children who love playing
on the computer. Games that depict social scenarios and ask children with ASD to
determine what should be said or done next are highly motivating. Available
social training software includes the CD-ROM series from Social Skill Builder,
which teaches children the rules of social communication. In particular, School
Rules! Volumes 1 and 2, like their other programs, use interactive video
sequences to imitate scenarios where children commonly interact with peers in an
unstructured school environment. Programs like School Rules! allow children to
practice everything from the right amount of social behaviors in the locker room
to appropriate lunchtime interaction in a safe, non-threatening environment.
Without the social skills they need, children with ASD may dread unstructured
play periods. But, that is only the beginning of what could be a downward spiral
to anxiety and depression. If they carry their deficits into adulthood, they may
spend their lives feeling lonely and rejected.
There is great hope for these children with the various methods and tools now
available to teach social skill development. By working together to determine
what is the best strategy for each child, parents, educators and professionals
will see that children with ASD can achieve social as well as academic success.
Jennifer Jacobs, MS, CCC-SLP, is co-founder of Social Skill Builder, a company
launched in 1999 to provide computer-based tools for teaching social skills to
children affected by autism spectrum disorder (ASD). Jacobs, along with her
sister and co-founder Laurie, MA, CCC-SLP, developed the software line when she
recognized a deficit in quality products for children and adolescents with
social competence issues.