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The Preview: Autism

Improve social skills for young people with autism: 4 approaches that work

Smiling shy-looking adolescent boy sitting outside with arm around two friendly-looking girls

For young people on the spectrum, social skills instruction can help smooth the way for success

Well-developed social skills are one of the key predictors of success in school, in the workplace, and in life in general. Professionals who work with young people with autism are always on the lookout for ways to help strengthen their social skills, promote communication and friendships, and get them ready for a bright future.

Below you'll find four powerful approaches that have been proven effective in improving the social skills of children and teenagers on the spectrum. See which will help you best prepare the young people you work with for lifelong success.

Community-building
Targeted teaching plans
Social coaches
Activity-based learning

Community-building

Great for: K–12 educators in inclusive classrooms

Community-building exercises are useful tools that bring people together and foster a sense of belonging, benefits that can improve the lives of everyone. These exercises are especially important in an inclusive classroom setting, where students with autism need regular opportunities to refine their social skills and build stronger bonds with their peers.

One of the foremost experts on autism and inclusion, Paula Kluth has written extensively on fostering community within a classroom. Here are some specific community-building exercises she recommends from "You're Going to Love This Kid!" Teaching Students with Autism in the Inclusive Classroom, Second Edition:

  • Compliment Chair. Arrange the chairs in your classroom in a semicircle with one chair facing the group. The students seated in the semicircle take turns offering a compliment to their seated classmate. After a set number of compliments, have the student pick the next person to sit in the chair.

  • Paper Bag Interviews. The teacher jots down a series of questions relating to class lessons and places them in lunch bags. After being arranged into small groups, each student takes turns pulling a question from the bag and answering it.

  • Story of My Life. Students create biographies with fun facts about themselves and share them, either with the whole class or in small groups.

Read complete descriptions of these activities, see adaptations, and get more community-building exercises in this excerpt from "You're Going to Love This Kid!"

Targeted teaching plans

Great for: K–12 educators in inclusive classrooms

If your goal is to work with a student on a specific social interaction skill such as greeting a peer or taking turns, one solution is to create a concise teaching plan that explicitly targets that skill and incorporates a combination of positive, effective behavioral teaching strategies. Here are a few popular strategies, adapted from Bringing ABA into Your Inclusive Classroom: A Guide to Improving Outcomes for Students with Autism Spectrum Disorders:

Behavioral teaching strategy Description
Follow the student's lead Start an interaction with the student by inserting yourself into their present activity. If a student is playing with a toy, the teacher or peer joins the student and initiates joint play with the toy.
Use prompting/fading procedures Use prompts or cues to assist in teaching behavior skills, but gradually fade them out to encourage independent response.
Encourage self-monitoring Teach students to evaluate their own performance, to increase motivation and make them more aware of their positive behaviors.
Incorporate time delays Instead of immediately offering verbal prompts, combine a short period of waiting with expectant facial expressions and body language designed to promote independent response.

Your teaching plan can combine any of these strategies, depending on the desired skill and the individual needs and abilities of the child. See how to target specific skills in these sample social interaction teaching plans from Bringing ABA into Your Inclusive Classroom.

Social coaches

Great for: Professionals in college counseling programs, vocational rehabilitation groups, and any other program helping people with social learning disorders

Young people with autism can benefit from skill-building outside the classroom as well. Many students struggle on their own with assignments like starting conversations and recognizing nonverbal social cues. Using a social coach—a same-age or slightly older peer recruited from a local college or university—is a great way to give young people with autism a three-dimensional, real-world understanding of social skills in action.

Accompanied by a social coach, young people often report feeling much less anxiety and experiencing more success during outside-the-classroom interactions. Social coaches also provide positive role models and all-important peer acceptance for students with autism.

In Social Literacy, Mary Riggs Cohen's social skills seminar for young adults with social anxiety, social coaches are an integral part of every lesson. Each student is assigned one coach to work with for the duration of the course. The following scenarios demonstrate how a social coach can offer essential guidance and help young people generalize skills to other settings:

  • Job Interviews. To help ready the student for potential job interviews, the social coach discusses with them what jobs they might be interested in and gives practical tips on how best to answer questions about themselves. The coach also acts as a fictional interviewer, leading the participant through sample questions and giving feedback.

  • Bookstore Conversations. The social coach and student go to a bookstore and observe various customers. The coach helps the student "read the room" and study body language to see who might be receptive to a casual conversation about a book recommendation.

  • Phone Calls. To help a young adult with autism initiate social activity, the social coach supports the student during a phone call to a friend or acquaintance. The social coach helps the student create a "script" of what to say before the call and provides emotional support.

Get tips on social coaches, including how to select and train coaches, and how to evaluate their performance, in this download from Social Literacy.

Activity-based learning

Great for: Special and general educators, speech-language pathologists, occupational therapists, psychologists, and social workers

You might already use some form of activity-based learning, in which you embed targeted activities within naturally occurring routines in a child's day. The MA & PA approach, as outlined in The SCERTS® Model: A Comprehensive Educational Approach for Children with Autism Spectrum Disorders, gives you simple ways to implement activity-based learning with children with autism.

With this approach, you use meaningful activities (MA) and purposeful activities (PA) to support the development and practice of social skills. Activities are highly individualized to fit the specific needs of each child you work with. There are three basic types of activities in this approach:

Type of activity Examples
Goal-directed activities Preparation of a meal or a sandwich; constructive play such as building towers or doing puzzles
Cooperative turn-taking games Cooperative play such as rolling balls back and forth, taking turns playing musical instruments or filling in songs; sensory-motor games such as taking turns on a slide or seesaw
Theme-oriented activities Routines of daily living such as getting ready for bed, eating at a restaurant, or going to the zoo

To make sure you're implementing MA & PA activities effectively, the authors of SCERTS offer some practical suggestions:

  • discuss the goal of the activity to give the student a better understanding of why the activity is being suggested

  • gradually introduce a new activity while gauging the child's interest level and whether the activity can be adapted to other areas of the child's life

  • establish a clear signal, such as a song or gesture, for when the activity begins and ends

  • try interrupting the activity once it is familiar, to encourage the child to continue it independently

Get a more in-depth primer on the MA & PA approach, including activity examples and more detailed implementation guidelines, in this excerpt from The SCERTS Model.

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So much in today's world—from the simple task of making a phone call to the complex process of finding and keeping a job—depends on effective social skills. Use these strategies to help the young people you work with gain greater confidence and competence interacting in social situations.

This article features downloads from these resources:

"You're Going to Love This Kid!" Teaching Students with Autism in the Inclusive Classroom, Second Edition

Bringing ABA into Your Inclusive Classroom: A Guide to Improving Outcomes for Students with Autism Spectrum Disorders

Social Literacy: A Social Skills Seminar for Young Adults with ASDs, NLDs, and Social Anxiety

The SCERTS® Model: A Comprehensive Educational Approach for Children with Autism Spectrum Disorders

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