The main traits of autism spectrum disorder involve challenges with social skills and communication skills and having restrictive or repetitive behaviors. Children with autism can struggle with these areas of functioning in their own unique ways.

Regarding social skills, kids with autism might have difficulty making or maintaining friendships. They might struggle with small talk or understanding verbal instructions. Kids with ASD experience social skills in their own unique ways.

Although it is essential to appreciate, support, and value individuals with autism for who they are, it is also okay to encourage them to develop skills in certain areas in ways that will improve their current and future quality of life. By helping children (and adults) with autism learn new skills, they can experience greater satisfaction in life, build and maintain meaningful relationships, and develop skills that can help them achieve goals and accomplish tasks in daily life.

What is Social Skills Therapy?

Social skills therapy is a service provided by professionals experienced in teaching people to develop skills that will support their interactions with others. Social skills therapy can be provided by social workers, therapists, or behavior analysts. Sometimes, counselors and educators also provide social skills training. You might also find occupational therapists, speech therapists, or psychologists who provide social skills training or social skills therapy.

Importance of Social Skills Training for Autism

Most children learn social skills naturally. They learn from experiences. They learn from observing others in their everyday lives. They learn from trial and error, from how their friends act, from what their parents teach them, and how they are rewarded or punished for certain behaviors – both intentionally (such as parents praising good behavior) or unintentionally (such as by peers making judgmental comments toward what they do or say).

Children with autism might not develop social skills in the same way that neurotypical peers learn these types of skills. People with autism sometimes benefit from formal or structured social skills training to help them learn skills that support their relationships and interactions with others.

Speech and Language Skills

Many children struggle with speech and language skills in certain ways. Some children with autism do not use vocal language to communicate. Some have limited vocal language and communicate with a few words instead of complex sentences. Other individuals with autism struggle with receptive language (or listening to and comprehending what others are saying).

Social skills training can help people with autism to improve their speech and language skills. These skills are especially important to practice and improve upon in real-life social situations.

Independence and Success Later in Life

Social skills training isn’t meant to make kids with autism fit in or be like everyone else. Instead, it is meant to help the individual have a better quality of life. Having specific social skills can help people be more independent during childhood, adolescence, and adulthood. It can also support educational and employment success.

People need social skills in many situations. For instance, social skills such as communication, working together, and following instructions are necessary for children at school and will benefit them into adulthood as they begin their careers. People need social skills in the community, such as speaking to a cashier when needed or asking for help from emergency professionals.


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Examples of Social Skills Therapy Goals

Although goals will look different for everyone who receives social skills therapy, let’s review some of the areas that could be addressed for children with autism.

Social Skills Training Goals for Autism

  • Maintaining a conversation with another person for a certain amount of time
  • Sharing personal information with others when appropriate
  • Practicing active listening skills with others to indicate understanding and empathetic responding
  • Appropriately expressing emotions
  • Responding to questions asked by others
  • Asking for help
  • Interpreting body language and facial expressions
  • Making requests
  • Sharing and taking turns
  • Changing behavior based on the context (i.e., library versus playground)
  • Hosting a get-together with peers
  • Attending a social activity
  • Accurately identifying someone else’s perspective
  • Responding to unexpected events that involve other people (i.e., change in plans or plans being canceled)
  • Sharing information with others about one’s personal interests
  • Saying “no” in specific situations
  • Working together on a project or task (teamwork/group work)

Autism and Co-Occurring Conditions

Almost three-quarters of people with autism spectrum disorder also have another behavioral health, neurological, or medical condition. This is referred to as having a co-occurring condition. Because co-occurring conditions are so common, it is important to point out that social skills training can help people with autism to cope with, manage, and improve the symptoms of not only their autism but also other conditions, as well. Let’s consider some common co-occurring conditions that children and adults with autism might experience.

Anxiety

About 40-60% of people with autism also experience anxiety. People who experience anxiety often struggle the most with anxiety in social situations. Social skills training can help them to reduce feelings and symptoms of anxiety and to increase their confidence and willingness to engage in social activities.

Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD)

ADHD is a behavioral health disorder that affects social skills. ADHD can result in being hyperactive around others, not following directions, forgetfulness, being easily distracted, and more. By helping people with autism develop social skills, you can also help them to manage their symptoms of ADHD.

Intellectual Disability and Developmental Delay

Intellectual disability can be diagnosed in a child who is over six years old and who has an IQ of 70 or below. Intellectual disability may make language and cognitive skills more challenging which then can hurt social interactions. It is thought that between 20-30% of children with autism also have an intellectual disability.

Children under six years old who have difficulty in certain areas of functioning in comparison to their same-aged peers may be considered as having a developmental delay.

Although there may not be a cure for intellectual disability or developmental delays, some people can learn skills that can help them to improve in certain areas of functioning such as improving communication skills or managing behaviors around peers.

Why Should Kids with Autism Attend Social Skills Therapy?

Kids with autism can benefit from social skills training because it can help them to improve the way they interact with others. It can help them to make and maintain friendships and improve other relationships, as well.

Social skills therapy can help kids with autism to have a better quality of life. This intervention doesn’t try to make the child be more like others; Instead, it helps the individual to make progress toward their own potential and to work toward goals that are meaningful to them.

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References

American Psychiatric Association. Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders. 5th ed. Arlington, VA: American Psychiatric Association; 2013.

Conditions that can occur with autism. Raising Children Network. (2021, March 22). Retrieved August 21, 2022, from https://raisingchildren.net.au/autism/learning-about-autism/about-autism/conditions-that-occur-with-asd