What's an easy and fun way to meet social skills goals for students with autism?

Find out in this Q&A with the authors of The Social Compass Curriculum: A Story-Based Intervention Package for Students with Autism Spectrum Disorders

About the authors

LouAnne Boyd

LouAnne Boyd, M.A., BC, is a private practitioner and the owner of ABAcus: Behavioral Tools for Social Engagement. She also is Autism Coordinator for the North Orange County Special Education Local Plan Area (SELPA) in California.

LouAnne conducts social skills groups in her community for both students with autism and neurotypical children. She conducts staff and parent trainings for social, communication, and behavioral interventions for home and school. LouAnne also teaches graduate-level courses for in-service special educators focused on evidence-based interventions in the classroom at California State University, Fullerton.

Since the early 1990s, LouAnne has served in clinic, community, and school settings. Her current interests include assessment, intervention, and generalization of social skills training.

Christina McReynolds, Ed.S, M.S., BCBA,, is a behaviorist and autism coordinator at the North Orange County SELPA. She supports five surrounding districts through research, professional development, and consultation for staff who work with individuals with autism. She is certified in behavior intervention case management, crisis intervention, and behavioral intervention for individuals with autism spectrum disorders.

Christina has been involved with individuals with disabilities since the late 1990s and has worked as a teacher, coordinator, and university instructor. She contributed to The Social Compass Curriculum as a response to the tremendous need for social cognition support that has been apparent throughout her career.

Karen Chanin, M.S., P.P.S., is a school psychologist and behavior analyst. She supports the North Orange County SELPA as an autism program specialist/school psychologist. She has more than 13 years of experience in working with children who have special needs.

Karen holds a master of science degree in counseling: pupil personnel services, with advanced specialization in school psychology. Her experiences in working with children with autism include providing in-home and at-school behavioral services and one-to-one support in the classroom; supervising staff working with children at home and at school; training teachers and other staff members on applied behavior analysis strategies; consulting with teachers; conducting assessments; and training others in autism-specific assessments.


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Q: What is The Social Compass Curriculum?

A: The Social Compass Curriculum is a 24-lesson guide to teaching social skills to students with autism spectrum disorder.

Because social skills are the skills involved in interacting and communicating with others, the natural environment for teaching and practicing them is in a group setting. To best support learning, these skills should be taught within a group regularly and consistently, in a setting where a child is experiencing typical daily interactions and situations.

Q: Generally, who are the lessons designed for?

A: Students with autism or students who can benefit from extra social skills instruction. When lessons occur outside of instructional time, such as during recess or after school, sessions often include peers without social skill needs.

Q: What was the impetus behind the development of the curriculum?

A: It grew out of a request for social skills support for students with autism in general education classrooms at the North Orange County Special Education Local Plan Area in California. Teachers and school-based therapists found they needed a systematic, easy-to-use guide based on best practices but they didn't have time to develop their own lessons.

The lessons in The Social Compass Curriculum are built on research-based elements of an effective social skills group. The original group comprised eight 4th–7th grade students with autism in general ed classes or who were home-schooled. Nathan Smith, a member of that first "graduating class" in 2002, is the illustrator of The Social Compass Curriculum.

Q: What areas of social skills does The Social Compass help students develop?

A: The Social Skills Curriculum targets four domains of social skills:

  • Nonverbal skills – knowing how to read a social situation, conveying intent without using words, and reading other people's nonverbal behavior
  • Emotions – correctly identifying your own and other people's emotional states, identifying emotional intensity, responding appropriately to others, and not being overly critical of yourself
  • Social problem solving – managing the multiple social situations that come up in a group, the classroom, or at school (remaining focused, resisting tattling, avoiding being left out)
  • "We" skills – building the complex social skills necessary to begin and sustain a successful conversation (asking questions, sharing interests, complimenting the other person, knowing when to end a conversation)

These four topics each begin with the same letter of the cardinal directions: north, east, south and west. Together they make up a compass—in this case, the social compass.

Q: What evidence-based practices are incorporated in the lessons?

A: All of the components recommended in the seminal article Social Skills Interventions for the Autism Spectrum: Essential Ingredients and a Model Curriculum (Krasny 2003) are included:

  • Make the abstract concrete (visual supports—like a "relevance radar" to remind students to keep their comments related to the discussion topic—help students recollect key points)
  • Provide structure and predictability
  • Provide scaffolded language support (scripts are provided in the book)
  • Use a prompt hierarchy
  • Provide multiple and varied learning opportunities
  • Include "other" focused activities
  • Foster self-awareness and self-esteem
  • Select relevant goals (the 24 lessons come from the suggestions of Sally Ozonoff)
  • Program in a sequential and progressive manner
  • Provide opportunities for programmed generalization and ongoing practice

Q: In what sort of settings has the The Social Compass Curriculum been successfully implemented?

A: We've seen the lessons implemented in a wide range of settings, all the way from Grade 1–3 classrooms to high school. It's been used in self-contained classes, inclusive classes, and in a lunch bunch of students in 4th–6th grade.

Q: Given how taxed teachers are for time, how can they fit The Social Compass Curriculum into their daily or weekly instruction?

A: That is easy; if students have social skill goals on their IEPs, then it follows that they need to spend instruction minutes on these activities. The curriculum is set up for ease of use in the classroom in one 40-minute lesson each week or in shorter lessons across the week. Each lesson follows the same 5 steps so teachers and students know right where there are in the sequence of the book.

The new Common Core State Standards focus and the need for RTI Tier-2 interventions for social and behavior issues also support the use of this evidence-based curriculum.

Q: Generalization is so key to social skills instruction—how does The Social Compass reinforce generalization of the skills students have learned into other settings like home or community?

A: The icons used throughout the curriculum with each lesson serve as visual supports or reminders and assist with generalization at home and beyond. All of the icons are on a handout and on a poster that can be hung in a classroom for quick and easy reminders for all students. Included as well are flashcards featuring one icon per card, with an explanation on the back, for those students requiring more targeted practice with a specific skill.

Each lesson also includes a Parent Follow-Up Page that is sent home so that the students can continue to practice the skills at home and in the community.

Q: Given how literal-minded many students with autism are, how well do the reminder icons help them retain appropriate behaviors?

A: Wonderfully! For some students who have been through the lessons, just showing the icon in a teachable moment outside of class instantly reminds them of expected behavior, even without a verbal reminder.

Students seem to be drawn to the icons/concepts they need work on the most. They seem fascinated with this world of tools that explain ways to address so many of their social challenges. One high school student enjoyed the lessons so much she took pictures of the icons to keep handy on her phone. She frequently would comment to the class what tool she is or should be incorporating in a moment. Other students, when reviewing a difficult moment with staff, state that their tool must have broken in that moment.

Q: How can teachers keep students engaged and help everyone get the most out of The Social Compass lessons?

A: Make it fun, show a willingness to take risks with modeling behavior, and create a safe environment to give and receive honest and kind feedback.

Also, encourage everyone to participate, explain feedback statements about themselves and others, and interrupt any unhelpful comments or behaviors.

Q: What is the importance of the Self-Monitoring Data Sheet?

A: This is a bridge to helping students become aware of their skill level so that they can recognize their own behavior, learn to accurately label it, and modify it as needed. It is impossible to change your own behavior if you are not aware of it.

Although The Social Compass Curriculum provides direct instruction on the skills, it starts building awareness for students to carry on the work outside of sessions.

The Social Compass Curriculum: A Story-Based Intervention Package for Students with Autism Spectrum Disorders

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Be sure to see these other titles:

School Social Behavior Scales User's Guide, Second Edition

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