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Autism Spectrum Disorders & Social Skills Training

Systematic social skills training and interventions can help improve the social competence and interpersonal relationships, while reducing repetitive behaviors in children and adolescents with ASDs.

By Adiaha Spinks-Franklin, MD, MPH, FAAP Developmental-Behavioral Pediatrician, Texas Children’s Hospital

Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASDs) are found in 1 in 68 children.

Children with ASDs struggle with social communication deficits and unusual behaviors and interests. Significant impairments such as these can impact social, academic and occupational functioning.

We define social skills deficits as difficulties taking another person’s perspective, understanding and interpreting body language and gestures, and being able to establish and maintain developmentally-appropriate interpersonal relationships, such as being a friend, making a friend and keeping a friend.

It can be challenging for children and adolescents with ASDs to sustain the motivation necessary to participate in relationships with peers. Individuals with ASDs struggle to initiate, sustain and correctly terminate reciprocal conversations with others. For example, a child with an ASD may not know how to respond to a compliment, or may talk extensively about their own interest without regard to the interest or understanding of the listener.

There is a growing body of scientific literature suggesting that systematic social skills training and interventions can help improve the social competence and interpersonal relationships, while reducing repetitive behaviors in children and adolescents with ASDs. Social skills training has been studied in a variety of settings including schools and using different modalities like Social StoriesTM, social skills curricula, role-play and video modeling.

School-based group training, led by guidance counselors or speech and language pathologists, is a common form of social skills intervention. There are also community-based social skills groups that are led by a variety of professionals, including Board Certified Behavior Analysts (BCBA) and private speech pathologists.

In addition to professionally led intervention, scientific evidence suggests that children with ASDs may learn to model appropriate social interactions when paired one-on-one with typically developing children who have appropriate social skills and behaviors.

Parents can foster social skills development in their children with ASDs by increasing opportunities for their child to interact with typically developing peers, or one-on-one play dates. Play dates should be adult-guided with no “screens” and include interactive games, such as card or board games. Parents participate in the game with the children and model turn taking, conversational banter, and friendly joking and teasing. The play date can be time-limited (e.g., 30 minutes) and in a setting that is comfortable for the child with an ASD. Parents may also consider role-play to help their children develop scripts to use in different scenarios, such as responding to a compliment, asking appropriate questions and/or understanding sarcasm.

Children with ASDs struggle with social-communication skills, but training has been found to be helpful in improving their social competence while reducing some symptoms of autism. Ongoing social skills training and practice is essential to helping children and teens with ASD build and maintain appropriate social skills.

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