Learning and practicing social skills can be challenging for anyone. But as a parent of a child with autism you may feel nervous when it comes to your child engaging in social activities at school and in other settings. We know how important it is for autistic children to practice social skills – it is something we work on every day in our clinics. It is important for children to know how to:
- Communicate in different situations (such as conversing with family or talking to their teacher)
- Identify and manage emotions
- Make and keep friends
- Listen to and learn from others
- Cultivate interests and hobbies
- Develop independence
Though socializing is a challenge for many children on the spectrum, kids are adaptable and resilient. Practicing social skills is a terrific way to ensure these important skills are being strengthened regularly. We have compiled a variety of ways you can incorporate social skill-building in your weekly routines.
1. Daily intentional social engagement
Aim to socially interact with your child at least once a day. Set this time aside intentionally. You can “sneak” in working on social skills during this time—it does not have to be “work” if you set it up as fun! Suggest an activity you can do together or ask to join them in whatever they are engaged in. One example is reading a story together and talking about how the characters feel, relating it to your child’s life. Or compile conversational questions on slips of paper and pull one out each night at dinner. Ask the question of everyone at the table so your child has models of how to answer the question. Getting on their level can open doors to positive communication which they can carry out into the world.
2. Practice play
More specifically, practice social skills by getting involved in pretend play with your child, such as shopping at the store or pretending to cook together in a play kitchen. Think of what social encounters your child might experience in these settings and provide opportunities for social interaction. For example, if you are “shopping at the store,” your child can be the clerk and you can be the customer asking how much something costs. Additionally, games such as simple board games or Hide and Seek provide social opportunities like taking turns and having good sportsmanship.
3. Set up play dates
In order for your child to learn how to connect with other kids and build self-confidence, encourage practicing social skills similar to their neurotypical peers. Connect with parents and set up play dates. Whether the kids are on the spectrum or not, there are benefits for your child hanging out with them! Neurotypical kids offer great examples for appropriate socializing, play scenarios, following the rules of a game, etc. While socializing with fellow kids with autism allows them to connect with someone who has a similar mind and skill level.
4. Watch a video of a social activity
If your child tends to get anxious before going somewhere where they’ll interact with others, it may be helpful to show a video of the place beforehand. If your child has a tough time doing social activities, such as going to the theatre to see a play or musical, find a video of another kid going to the theatre. Discuss what is happening in the video with your child, what to expect, and how to act when at the theatre. Pay attention to any concerns they might relay or what specific parts of the place or activity make them nervous. Whether it’s going to the theatre, ordering at a restaurant, or playing at a water park, giving your child some context through a video or even just pictures can ease their mind.
5. Practice social skills learned in ABA sessions (if applicable)
Since social skills are worked on consistently in ABA Therapy, if your child is enrolled, it’s crucial that skills are generalized outside of therapy. Ask your child’s BCBA what social skills to work on with your child and how to practice them at home. Kids can practice with parents or siblings, and even pets. For example, talk about how a pet might feel in a particular moment. You can even set up the same reward system as they have at the clinic, such as a token board, to encourage the generalization of social skills.
6. Take breaks and create a “safe space”
We all need breaks from socializing, especially kids with autism. Children with autism tend to get overstimulated and overwhelmed much more than neurotypical kids. Create a safe space free from sensory or social overload, where your child can take a break when needed. This space could be a room or area in the house, or a favorite outdoor spot. Whatever the location, make sure it is clutter-free, calm, quiet, and stocked with any comforting items such as toys, special lighting, comfortable furniture, etc.
Keep in mind that you do not need to jump in and try all these ideas at once. Slowly test them out and see which ones seem to help your child. As with trying anything new, time is needed to figure out what will stick, and some things will take more time than others for your child to adjust to.
If you’re needing additional help in teaching your child social skills, ABA and Speech Therapy are wonderful ways to provided additional support. Contact us for more info.