Autism and Social Skills

Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a developmental disorder characterized by deficits in social-emotional reciprocity, nonverbal communication, and relationship building and maintenance. According to the CDC, “1 in 44 children has been identified with autism spectrum disorder and is 4 times more common among boys than among girls”.

Children with autism spectrum disorder can experience motor deficits, intellectual disabilities, hearing loss, behavioral concerns, and language deficits. Language deficits include the following: 

  • Slow acquisition of speech sound production
  • Disinterest in socialization with other people with a preference to keep to self
  • Echolalia
  • Difficulties with comprehension and use of figurative language 
  • Difficulty with generalization of word meanings and understanding relationship between words
  • Social communication deficits such as lack of eye contact, difficulty with initiation and maintenance of conversation, decreased assertiveness
  • Difficulty with joint attention
  • Perseveration of words and phrases

It is important to note that diagnosis of ASD is often difficult. Per CDC, “ASD can sometimes be detected at 18 months of age or younger. By age 2, a diagnosis by an experienced professional can be considered reliable“. 

Speech Therapy and Autism Spectrum Disorder

Given that autism spectrum disorder differs in its severity and associated challenges, a multidisciplinary team approach is typically utilized as many professions can help the child develop the necessary skills. The following is not limited to but incldues common professions on the mutlidisciplinary team:

  • Speech Language Pathologist (SLP)
  • Occupational Therapist (OT)
  • Physical Therapist (PT)
  • Board Certified Behavioral Analyst (BCBA)
  • Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) Therapists
  • Developmental Therapists (DT)
  • Early Childhood Specialists 

While each profession contributes a level of expertise to help your child, a speech language pathologist can help with speech sound disorders, comprehension and expression of language, and social communication skills. Social communication skills are vital to create meaningful relationships with those around them and help the child express their wants and needs. 

In fact, your child will often utilize the skills learned in speech therapy to help them grow and navigate their natural environment. In fact, that is one of my greatest joys as a SLP- being able to help your child develop a new sense of confidence and autonomy to succeed. One high schooler I worked with had difficulty socializing with peers and was unable to hold a conversation about preferred and non-preferred topics. She learned foundational social skills and soared- she was able to make meaningful relationships with peers and went on to work at her local Walmart where she was able to connect with customers daily. 

5 Strategies to Improve Social Skills

Here are 5 strategies to help improve your child’s social skills.

  • Model Social interactions and Role-Play

Though role play, you can help your child navigate through common interactions to practice appropriate social behavior. Not only does this help your child implement what they’ve learned, but it also helps them practice the scenarios in the real world with genuine interactions and develop a better understanding of social nuances. For example, you can practice social greetings with familiar and unfamiliar partners. 

  • Use Social Stories

As a SLP, I love using social stories! It is a great way to teach your child a new social skill and can help serve as a visual reminder during social interactions. Often with younger children, I use social stories for turn taking and sharing of toys. It’s a great tool to personalize so you can use a favorite character that your child loves. For example, I used characters from Sesame Street to help teach the social skill of turn taking and how that makes peers feel. 

  • Expected Versus Unexpected Behaviors

Often with younger and older children, I work on expected versus unexpected behaviors. This is a great way for your child to put on their social thinking hat and better understand social rules. For example, your child may have difficulty with sharing the toy blocks. When your child rips the block out of a peer’s hand, that would be an unexpected behavior because it made the friend feel sad and hurt. After identifying why a behavior is unexpected, it’s great to then push the concept further and identify what would an expected behavior be. In this scenario, sharing the toy and playing together would be expected behavior. 

  • Practice Outside of Structured Environments

After your child has developed a strong conceptual understanding of expected behaviors and appropriate social interactions, it is extremely important to practice, practice, practice! While structured environments are a great starting point, it is great for the child to practice in a natural setting to increase their confidence and generalize this skill. For example if your child is working on initiation and maintenance of conversation, encourage your child to practice the librarian at your local library. 

  • Community Social Groups

If your child is feeling shy about practicing social skills in their natural environment, community social groups are a great way to generalize what they’ve learned while focusing on the building and maintenance of relationships with individuals who may be experiencing the same difficulties. 

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