Of the many concerns parents of children with autism express to me, the greatest challenge is their child’s difficulties in using appropriate social skills to establish and maintain friendships and relationships. This is understandable, as friendships and social connections are a vital foundation of a healthy, happy and fulfilling life. It is important to develop these skills at a young age, as social skills developed during childhood are often carried through adulthood.
However, as parents of a child diagnosed with ASD, you likely already know that using appropriate social skills to navigate the world and to establish relationships can be challenging. Children across the spectrum who struggle in this critical area sometimes just need some help to learn each social skill. While the process of learning and integrating these skills can vary greatly from child to child, the following is a list of activities from which all children with ASD can benefit.
Use scripts to help dialogue.
Meaningful conversations lie at the heart of every friendship. Children with autism can benefit from the use of scripts to build their conversation skills. Scripts can be written or auditory and they discuss specific situations in which children may find themselves. For example, you could create some scripts that involve your child’s favorite sport, pop star or hobby, as well as more functional scripts such as how to talk about what they did over the weekend. The script should contain specific language and phrases that your child can practice for use in appropriate social situations.
Once you’ve written a script that is at or slightly above your child’s conversational level, add relevant visuals and color coding. This helps with understanding the context and the turn taking between the conversation partners. It also helps to prepare a few different scripts to help your child learn to vary their conversation, and include options for spontaneity. When you start practicing these, use authentic opportunities throughout the day, such as asking about their day at school. Respond naturally, as you would any other conversation, rather than offering feedback phrases such as “Well done.”
Perform role plays with family, friends and neighbors.
Another great way of “learning by doing” is the use of role play. Role play helps to familiarize children with common social interactions and equip them with the language and actions to appropriately engage. It can also be combined with scripts to further build conversational skills.
A common example of role playing is utilizing a special role that your child may have been given in preparing for Shabbat, so they know what to do and how to act. You can also role play teaching and practicing certain blessings, or certain mitzvot, which again prepares them for when they need to engage in these activities.
Capitalize on your child’s interests.
It’s important to keep in mind that your child may form friendships based on shared interests, while being less engaged in the social and emotional aspects of the relationship. Therefore, you should capitalize on your child’s interests as a way to help them make friends. Initiate and encourage discussions of their interests around the home and in other family settings. You can use the two activities discussed above as an effective way to do this.
Once your child is regularly engaging in dialogue with family members about their interests, you can enroll them in sports or social clubs that are specific to these interests. And if they’re at an appropriate developmental age to use the internet, seek out appropriate special-interest communities online that can provide an outlet to socialize with others.
Use social stories to encourage socially appropriate behavior.
Social stories are short descriptions of a particular situation or activity, which provides specific information on what to expect and why. This can really help children with autism build greater social understanding of everyday situations and events, which in turn helps them learn the appropriate behavior for the situation.
Initially popularized by the renowned therapist Carol Gray, social stories were found to help children visualize and predict their role and its outcome in any setting. Anyone can write a social story. To do this, you just need to consider the end goal of the story and what your child needs to understand to achieve this goal. Then, you create a story, placing your child as a key character in that story.
For example, with the holiday of Purim approaching, you could write a social story that has the end goal of encouraging your child to wait patiently in line during the carnival. The story would then emphasize why waiting in line is important, by explaining how pushing would make other children feel.
And remember, there’s no one-size-fits-all approach.
The most important thing to remember is that every child is unique. It is said, “If you’ve met one child with autism, you’ve met one child with autism.” What can be effective with a friend’s or family member’s child may be less effective with your own child, or vice versa.
Therefore, be patient and try different approaches and activities, in order to find the most effective method for your child. When approached in this manner, over time you should start to see a tangible impact on your child’s ability to make and maintain meaningful friendships and social connections. Ultimately, this is at the heart of what all parents want for their children.
Estee Rothstein, BCBA, is the executive director at Golden Care Therapy, a New Jersey-based provider of in-home therapy for children with autism. For more information go to www.goldencaretherapy.com.