Going to the movies, hanging out with friends, chatting on the phone – these are simple rituals most individuals take for granted. For a person with autism, these experiences are few and far between. A lack of social skills and the inability to relate to people, are two seminal characteristics of autism. But the mistake most people make is to assume that someone with autism does not want to have social interactions. In reality, it isn’t that they don’t want to interact socially, it’s that they can’t.
An inability to anticipate how people think and feel in social situations is a hallmark feature of autism. Individuals with autism might want to enter a conversation, but they don’t know how. As a child gets older, this can be devastating and cause the individual to further withdraw.
The problem is compounded when children with mild autism are mainstreamed in school with typical developing kids and forced into an environment where they feel different. The same thing happens when attending a birthday party or a family gathering. This often causes families to isolate in order to avoid meltdowns in public.
Therefore, a big chunk of our efforts should be devoted to teaching social skills. Social interaction is a must in a child’s environment since this is a skill they will need throughout life. A child’s struggle with social skills can neither be concealed nor overcompensated by any other skill. Most children learn social skills through imitation but children who have a harder time learning these skills need to be taught. Children who do not develop appropriate social skills will suffer loneliness and isolation. This can create difficulties with communication and result in behavior problems.
To help your child be successful in social situations and learn the social skills fundamental to his or her development, it is necessary to prepare your child for the social situation and prepare the social situation for your child. Here is a list of recommendations that will help children thrive in social situations:
- Prepare your child before entering a social situation by giving precise instructions and expectations.
- Make sure the social situation is appropriate for your child.
- Have a “Plan B” in case things go wrong when planning to attend a social event.
- Teach your child through role-playing games using dolls and toys, reading stories, singing songs etc.
- Teach them to share, take turns, and follow rules.
- Make use of natural situations to teach them: set examples of desired social behaviors in your everyday life; comment on what you see in videos and TV shows.
- Reward positive social behavior.
- Use photos and videos to introduce your child to different people.
- Help build your child’s self-esteem by assigning them leadership roles within the family.
- Encourage your child to help and take part in daily household chores.
- Use mistakes as opportunities to teach appropriate social behavior instead of punishing them.
- Encourage and increase opportunities for successful social experiences and offer praise.
- Avoid and minimize social failure as much as possible.
It is a battle worth to fight.
Daniel Adatto, BCBA