How can he be so clever but not know when to stop talking?

How can he be so selfish when he is playing? He is the first to tell others off for being so.

Is she really rude or does she just not understand?

You may have asked yourself these questions while watching your young child with an autism spectrum disorder (ASD) try to interact with their peers. Many parents struggle to justify this imbalance in skill level and wonder what it is that makes their children lack basic social skills when they can have extraordinary skills in other areas.

Three areas of difficulty

It has always been recognised that social interaction is an area of difficulty for children diagnosed with an ASD but in the seventies Dr Lorna Wing and Dr Judith Gould defined the key areas by introducing the triad of impairments:

  • social interaction (difficulty with social relationships, for example appearing aloof and indifferent to other people)
  • social communication (difficulty with verbal and non-verbal communication, for example not fully understanding the meaning of common gestures, facial expressions or tone of voice)
  • social imagination (difficulty in the development of interpersonal play and imagination, for example having a limited range of imaginative activities, possibly copied and pursued rigidly and repetitively).

It is not that children with an ASD will never be able to learn these skills, but more that they are going to need specific teaching in these areas. Most children learn social skills by watching their peers, experimenting in imitation and refining their skills as they go. Children with an ASD can find this difficult so they seem to miss many opportunities to practise these skills. Social skills and social situations need to be broken down, explained, and practised so children with an ASD can absorb them at a level that makes sense to them. A young woman with Asperger syndrome explained:

It's as if everybody is playing some complicated game and I am the only one who hasn't been told the rules.
Sainsbury, 2000, p8

Many children with an ASD can be genuinely bewildered and overwhelmed in social situations. We hope that by the end of this information sheet you will have some practical ideas about ways you can help your child to develop their skills in this area so they can explore the social world with more confidence.



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What do we mean by social skills?

We all use a variety of social skills any time we interact. A child who plays on their own is not being asked to use their social skills, which is why many children with an ASD retreat to solitary play - it is uncomplicated and they don't make mistakes.

By 'social skills' we generally mean any of the following:

  • conversational skills (greetings, joining a conversation, verbal turn-taking, listening skills, talking about a particular topic, awareness of personal space, ending a conversation, etc)
  • play skills (observational skills, joining play, turn-taking, sharing, compromising, conflict resolution, coping with 'no', coping with losing, reciprocal play, ending play, etc)
  • understanding emotions (reading facial expressions, reading body language, voice quality - intonation, pitch, speed, awareness of own body language, having a large emotional vocabulary eg not just happy/sad, anger management and self-regulation skills)
  • dealing with conflict (as above - anger management and self-regulation skills, theory of mind see section on pg. 7, communication skills such as the ability to ask for help, ability to walk away from a stressful situation, being assertive but not aggressive, dealing with bullying, etc)
  • friendship skills (many of the above but also things like knowing what a friend is, and being able to choose appropriate friends, recognise true friends from false friends, develop the ability to share a friend, deal with peer pressure, etc).

The development of these skills in typically developing children starts early in life and happens over a number of years, generally without a lot of direct instruction. Children explore the environment around them using trial and error to work out problems. They observe other children, try to imitate them and attempt to join in. If they make a mistake, they learn from it and continue playing. Skills become more refined as they grow and they begin to absorb social trends. Children with an ASD do not seem to naturally develop social skills in the same way their peers do. This is why you need to try to digest social situations for your child and explain them in a way that will make sense .

We all know that every child with an ASD is different. Dr Lorna Wing has categorised the types of difficulties children with an ASD may have into four sub-groups:

  • The 'aloof' child who may appear rather withdrawn and indifferent to other people, and may be difficult to comfort when distressed.
  • The 'passive' child who will not make spontaneous approaches to other people but will accept contact if initiated by others.
  • The 'active but odd' child who will approach other children spontaneously but this will often be in an odd or inappropriate manner. Often they may pay little attention to the responses of those they have approached.
  • The 'over formal, stilted group' often seen in teenagers and adults but could be seen in young children also. This group of people use overly formal language and behaviour and are excessively polite. Can be very rule bound in social situations.

It is possible for people to move through these groups as they grow and develop. A child who fits the 'aloof' category may learn skills to interact but may still be a little different or 'odd' in comparison to their peers.

What to teach

The previous section is by no means a comprehensive look into social skills but it highlights how diverse the area of social skill development is. There can be an element of crossover of social skills and their use. However physical turn-taking in games can be very different to verbal turn-taking in conversation. But there is also a hierarchy of these skills that needs to be remembered.

There is little point delving straight into anger management strategies if your child has little understanding of facial expressions, and there is little point trying to teach facial expressions if the child finds it difficult to sit still, focus on a speaker and pay attention in the first place. It is important to start from the current level of the child, rather than the level at which we would like them to be or the level of their peers.

You know your child but it may also be a good idea to speak to school staff or any other professionals involved with your child. This will highlight any social issues at school and any consistent or prominent problems. Alternatively, if your child sees a psychologist they may be able to offer some more in-depth guidance or even do some preliminary checklists or assessments.

One of the biggest issues children with an ASD will encounter in their learning is generalisation. Children who do not have an ASD will often learn a skill at home, such as tying their shoelaces and then be able to do it in a variety of contexts. Children with an ASD, however, may need to be re-taught skills in new environments and with new people. Because of the difficulties in developing social imagination and their general difficulties in 'thinking outside the box', many children learn skills but then have difficulty replicating them in another environment.

They may not understand the similarities between tying their shoelaces at home and tying their shoelaces at school. They may need the similarities of the two situations pointed out to them. This issue is very important to keep in mind when addressing social skills.

Try to link a skill you are teaching to a real tangible situation, refer to examples, use people's names, get the child to practise the skill they are working on in as many environments and with as many different people as they can.

When to teach

Finding the time to teach your child social skills will depend on your family's circumstances. Some parents may choose to have spontaneous teaching moments when time allows. Others may like to have it scheduled into the weekly routine, eg every Saturday morning. Or others may adopt a combination of the two, aiding generalisation.

Important things to remember when choosing teaching opportunities:

  • Do not teach during times of high stress. When your child is distressed, they are generally not in a state to be able to absorb any new information. For example, it would not be a good time to talk about sharing when a child is in the middle of a meltdown because their brother would not share his toy.
  • If you are going to have a planned, time-tabled activity prepare your child for when this is going to happen and what is going to happen during the session. Use visual reminders to reinforce this, for example putting a particular coloured sticker on the calendar to indicate the day and remind them before the day and on the day itself.
  • Pick the day/time carefully. Do not schedule it when their favourite TV programme is on or on a day of the week you know they find particularly stressful, eg PE day at school.
  • Make the first sessions fun and short. Start with an activity that is enticing for them such as cooking which involves a number of social skills like sharing, following instructions, listening, waiting or something involving your childs special interest. The length and complexity of the sessions can be extended as time goes on.
  • Make the first sessions one-to-one if you can. Establish the reasons for these sessions first without other people adding any additional stress. Bring the childs attention to the skill they are learning, for example say "Wow Sam, you are sharing really well with me today". Introducing other children such as siblings, cousins, neighbours and classmates can be done at a later date gradually and with support.
  • Try to create an environment of success. Support them to learn new skills and gradually reduce your support so they can do the skill independently. Try to always finish a session on a positive note - recapping on what they have learnt and how they have moved forward. Praise will be very important to the child as they might find a lot of these skills challenging. They will need lots of tiny encouragements along the way to gain confidence in their abilities and to feel better about taking risks.

Other important factors to consider


No matter how much work is undertaken in the home on social skills training, if the child does not learn to generalise these skills, they will never make the most of them. Involve the school in what you are doing at home and ask them to reinforce and support these concepts and interventions at school. If your child has difficulties with social skills at home they are probably occurring at school. Supporting this area of skill development could be seen to be in their best interest and schools are required to work in cooperation with parents under the Special Educational Needs Code of Practice (England and Wales).

  • Personal, Social and Health Education (PSHE) is a non-statutory part of the National Curriculum and is taught throughout all four key stages (ages five to16). Asking the school to discuss buddy programmes, circle of friends, structured social skills lessons, self-esteem and self-awareness lessons, disability awareness lessons, and even a specific class talk on ASD (see reference to lesson plan fact sheet below) could all be incorporated under the heading of PSHE. Children are often more accepting of differences amongst their peers when they have more information.
  • If your child has a statement of educational needs (England and Wales) or a record of needs (RoN) or co-ordinated support plan (CSP) (Scotland), it may be possible to work in the area of social skills as an area of development that needs additional support. The statement/RoN/CSP needs to incorporate all education-related issues, not just academic. So if your childs social skills are prohibiting their access to the curriculum, that area of skill development needs to be addressed. This may mean additional support in the playground, a Learning Support Assistant (LSA) to support specific social skills lessons, small group work, etc. Alternatively, sometimes already allocated LSA time can be diverted to address social skills, eg if the LSA currently sits with them in maths (in which they can work quite independently) but the child has no support during break times, it is worth investigating with the SENCO of head teacher whether the LSAs hours could be re-shuffled to support that child better. If you have any difficulties in getting the school to work with you on these issues, it may be useful to seek specialist education advice. You can call our Autism Helpline on 0808 800 4104 to discuss this further.

Local community

Using your local community's resources is a great way to open your child's social networks. Your local library often has a community notice board which may have interesting up and coming events.

  • Look for any local interest clubs, chess clubs, sporting groups that your child might be interested in.
  • Getting your child assessed through social services for access to play schemes after school and/or during the school holidays may help to broaden their social networks. The Autism Helpline can advise you on how to get your child assessed through social services if they are not already in contact with them.
  • Our Autism Services Directory is the most comprehensive directory of autism services in the UK. It has details of local services for people with an ASD. Or call our Autism Helpline on 0808 800 4104 if you do not have access to the internet and we can do the search for you.

Structured programmes

If you feel that you would like to take a much more structured approach in teaching your child social skills, there are many commercially available programmes that you could work through with your child. Before embarking on a formal programme it is often worth getting some professional input to help guide you to resources that are most appropriate for your child. You want to make sure you are putting all your time and effort into strategies that are actually suitable for your child's stage of development. Here are some brief descriptions of some of the more widely used and available programmes in the UK:

Mind reading: The interactive guide to emotions
Produced by Cambridge University Autism Research Centre
Based on research conducted by Cambridge University it addresses the issue of recognising and understanding over 400 emotions. It puts emotions in context, provides an opportunity to see and hear different emotions, and has lessons, games and a quizzes section. It comes as a DVD or a CD-ROM.

The Cat-Kit: Cognitive affective training
Authors: Annette Moller Nielsen, Kirsten Callesen, Tony Attwood (
Developed to facilitate conversations about thoughts and feelings in children with social communication difficulties. Aims to help children gain better insight into social relationships, friendships and understanding others. Lots of visual aids and charts are used in this kit.

Navigating the social world
Author: Dr Jeanette McAfee, published by Future Horizons Publishing Company
Full programme developed with her daughter with high-functioning autism in mind. This is a comprehensive ready-to-go programme which addresses many issues such as recognising and coping with your emotions, stress management and relaxation skills, communication and social skills, abstract thinking skills, and some behavioural tips.

Teaching children with autism to mind-read: A practical guide
Authors: Patricia Howlin, Simon Baron-Cohen and Julie Hadwin, published by John Wiley & Sons Ltd
Addresses issues specifically around 'theory of mind' in relation to other social skills. Looks at interpreting facial expressions, recognising feelings, affective conditions that impact on someone's feelings and actions, seeing things from another person's perspective and understanding their beliefs and knowledge.

Reading faces and learning about human emotions
Author: Barbara Maines, published by Lucky Duck Publishing Ltd
Specifically focusing on understanding emotions and reading facial expressions, this programme (CD-ROM and workbook-based with printable worksheets) breaks many of the skills down under National Curriculum headings. A great resource for schools!

Social skills training for children and adolescents with Asperger syndrome and social-communication problems
Author: Jed. E. Baker, published by Jessica Kingsley Publishers
Covers lots of skill areas, such as conversational skills, cooperative play skills, friendship skills, self-regulation, empathy and conflict resolution. Very detailed and broken down lesson plans for children who may need very specific instruction. Puts a lot of emphasis on practising the skill at other times to help generalisation.

Do-watch-listen-say: Social and communication intervention for children with autism
Author: Kathleen Ann Quill, published by Paul H. Brookes Publishing Company
Very formalised and structured programme with numerous checklists and assessment tools. Addresses the needs of very young children or those at the lower end of the autistic spectrum.

Social skills programmes: An integrated approach from early years to adolescence
Authors: Maureen Aarons and Tessa Gittens, published by Speechmark Publishing Company
Great if you need to look at your child's skills developmentally. Skill areas and appropriate activities are broken down in age groups of 3-5, 5-7, 7-11 and 11-16.

Asperger's... What does it mean to me? A workbook explaining self awareness and life lessons to the child or youth with high functioning autism or Aspergers
Author: Catherine Faherty, published by Future Horizons Publishing Company
Information for school and home, a comprehensive workbook that can be very personalised. Looks at the diagnosis, what AS means, areas of difficulty and strength, social strategies, emotions, friendships, family dynamics, communication issues and strategies for school. Is split into a 'workbook' section for the child and a 'parents and teachers' section for the adults.

Draw on your emotions: creative ways to explore, express and understand important feelings.
Author: Margot Sunderland and Philip Engleheart, published by Speechmark Publishing Company
Not autism-specific, but a great resource for children who find it easier to draw their emotions rather than talk about them. Lots of different activities looking at friendship, self-esteem, isolation, feelings, etc

What did you say? What did you mean? An illustrated guide to understanding metaphors
Author: Jude Welton, published by Jessica Kinglsey Publishers
Fun book that explains metaphors to children with social communication problems. Lots of drawings and cartoons.

Skillstreaming books
Author: Ellen McGiniss and Arnold P. Goldstein, published by Research Press Publishing Company
Series of three social skills books looking at development in early childhood, middle years and adolescence. Written very developmentally and gives a good hierarchy of social skill development. Has lesson plans corresponding to skills at that level. Comes with skill cards and is in CD-ROM format.

Author: Alex Kelly, published by Speechmark Publishing Company
Specifically social communication programme comprised of 'Talkabout', 'Talkabout Relationships' and 'Talkabout Activities'. Very structured and uses a lot of visuals. Concentrates a lot on self-awareness and early communication skills such as body language, conversations, listening skills, assertiveness, etc.

Super skills: A social skills group program for children with Asperger syndrome, high-functioning autism and related challenges
Author: Judith Coucouvanis, published by the Autism Asperger Publishing Company
Another structured programme. Although it focuses on running group sessions, it still has lots of activities that could be done in the home. Has a good screening questionnaire and information pertinent to initial stages of the teaching process. Very visual and easy to read.

Teaching Asperger's students social skills through acting: all the world's a stage!
Author: Amelia Davis, published by Future Horizons Inc
For children who are a little more outgoing and enjoy drama.

Space Travelers: an interactive program for developing social understanding, social competence and social skills for students with Asperger Syndrome, autism and other social cognitive challenges
Authors: M. A. Carter and J. Santomauro, published by Autism Asperger Publishing Company
A group programme with a difference. Basis learning social skills on working through a 'space program' and its different modules. Very fun, interactive and great for children with a special interest in science and space!

The Incredible 5-point scale: assisting children with ASDs in understanding social interactions and controlling their emotions
Authors: Kari Dunn Buron and Mitzi Curtis, published by Autism Asperger Publishing Company
This clearly written book shows children how to work at problem behaviour such as obsessions or yelling and move on to alternative positive behaviours. Uses scaling as a way to rate and modify behaviour level.

Socially speaking
Author: Alison Shroeder, published by LDA Publishing
This book is aimed at teachers, to help introduce and practice skills with pupils. It is divided into 3 units: lets communicate, lets be friends, and lets practise. The book is aimed at children aged 7-11, however it may be suitable for older children as well.

But the main thing to keep in mind when helping your young child with an ASD to improve their social skills is practise!

School was a torture ground in itself for me because of my lack of social skills and my absolute terror of people, in part because I didnt just automatically know the social rules, and, when I did lean them, I had to think about them all the time and who can keep up that sort of coping skill all the time? 'Karen', Martian in the playground, (Sainsbury, 2000)

Practical ideas for developing different social skills at home

Recognising facial expressions

  • Make biscuits with faces on them using icing/sweets/dried fruit. Discuss the different parts of the face, make different expressions, copy them, mirror to each other, talk about situations where you have made that expression or seen your child make that expression. The same kind of thing can be done with an art activity, making faces on paper plates, puppets, masks, face painting, drawing faces on flat surfaces using finger paints or shaving foam, etc.
  • Cartoons are a great resource when it comes to teaching facial expressions as they are very over exaggerated. Watch an episode of a cartoon together and pause at appropriate spots, talk through, copy facial expressions, see if you can predict what will happen next.
  • Watching the TV show Mr BeanTM may also prove beneficial as there is no language to complicate things. The understanding of the show is based on observing facial expressions and body language of the characters, and also what is happening in the environment at the time.
  • Many children with an ASD will have an emotional vocabulary of happy, sad and angry with nothing in between. Start with those and then branch out to other feelings such as surprised, confused, etc.
  • Use a camera to take photos of you and your child or other people making a certain facial expression and get them to see the similarities in how their faces work. This will help with generalisation. Or print off photos and use them in a matching card game such as snap.
  • Visit the 'do2learn' website which has a free online game about facial expressions:

Recognising body language


  • Many of the above ideas for helping your child recognise facial expressions can also be used for body language, along with charades, miming activities, role plays, drama games, etc.
  • 'Detective' game. Drawing chalk body outlines on the patio or a large roll of paper, identifying important body parts to look at when assessing someones body language. Giving the role of playing detective can appeal to some children.
  • Flick through magazines and cut out pictures of people whose body language is 'negative' and 'positive' and talk through what this means. Make cards of positive and negative body language and hide them all over the house. Play 'treasure hunt' with the cards and then get your child to copy the body language, name a feeling that matches it and put the cards in positive and negative piles. Or match them to pictures of themselves portraying the same body language - this helps with generalisation.
  • Make use of technology and most children's general love of it! Access to digital cameras and/or video recorders can be a great way of showing children what they look like to others as they may be very unaware. Temple Grandin, a well known public speaker and adult with an ASD, used to watch a lot of video footage of herself speaking in public, watching the audience for signs of boredom to improve her skills.
  • It is important to teach children to recognise other people's body language but also to be aware of their own. Develop a signal (such as touching your ear, nose, etc) that you can give your child when they are using inappropriate body language so they can correct themselves.


  • Ensure that the foundation skills (recognising facial expressions, body language, naming feelings, etc) are there before moving on to the motivation behind emotion and understanding that people's emotional reactions can be different from one another.
  • Produce an A-Z list of emotions, for example, A-angry, B-bored, C-confused. This can be a good way to demonstrate how many there are. You can talk through a new one every couple of days, get them to demonstrate it, talk about when they have felt that way and you reciprocate so they understand more about other people's difficulties too. Take a photo of them doing something to demonstrate that feeling, or ask them to draw it and create 'a feelings dictionary' that they can refer back to.
  • Once you've come up with a list of feelings, categorise and colour code the list. Write negative feelings in red and positive ones in blue. Children with an ASD often respond to tangible concepts and colour coding can help them sort and categorise. Carol Gray uses this concept in Comic Strip ConversationsTM but it can be done with a list of words too. As their understanding broadens, so can the number of categories. When teaching calming strategies, saying things like in with the blue, out with the red can help them visualise calm feelings taking over and bad feelings leaving their bodies. It's also important to ask the child what colours they want to use - colour choices that might make us puzzled may make perfect sense to them.
  • Using a visual tool such as a drawing of a thermometer can be a really good way to teach children with an ASD the different intensity of emotion. This can be created with the child to their level of understanding and changed over time as their concept awareness grows (see below example). It can then be placed in a prominent part of the house (the fridge, by the front door, etc) with photos of everyone in the family next to it. Make it a part of the family's routine that everyone rates themselves at different times of the day and talk it through at different times of the day - after getting up, when the children come home from school, after dinner, etc. They will then see that everyone may be feeling different things at different times and that not everyone feels as they do. Other popular versions can be a speedometer, a ladder or a ruler - use your child's special interest.
  • Using a well-known character can be a good idea if a child is really interested in a particular topic. For example, when teaching about appropriate energy levels using Winnie the Pooh , Tigger and Eeyore. One character is obviously very calm, level headed and friendly. Another is very bouncy, loud and boisterous. And the last is very tired, lethargic and has very low-self esteem. Referring to a child's behaviour as "you are being a bit like TiggerTM, you need to calm down a little so your brother can understand you" may help them grasp how they might appear to others at times.
  • Movement games can also be good. "Let's jump around" as an angry body, "let's skip" as a happy body, "let's sit quietly" as a calm body. This can help the child relate an internal feeling to an external appearance and also understand how we behave when we feel something.
  • With regard to the complex issue of anger management: a child cannot be expected to know how to 'calm down' if they have not worked on the calm feeling first. They need to know what that feeling looks like, feels like and sounds like before knowing how to adjust their behaviour.
  • Formal resources such as The incredible 5 point scale, When my autism gets too big, Mind reading and The CAT-Kit all look at emotional management (see 'structured programmes' section below). However, these are quite advanced and might be more appropriate for children with Asperger syndrome.

Entering games/situations

  • Make sure your child actually knows what a 'game' is. It is important they understand that in many games there will be a winner and a loser. Many children with an ASD will not understand this unless it is discussed with them first.
  • After establishing observational skills, teach your child how to choose children who might be compatible playmates with similar interests. For example, if your child wants to talk about football - choose a child playing football, rather than a child who is reading a book or playing with a computer game. Some children with an ASD will just assume everyone is interested in what they have to say, so by helping them guess what children are interested it might narrow this search down.
  • Teach your child a script that they can say if they want to play with someone and rehearse it with them. Make sure you practise alternative endings, eg what to do if they say no. Also explain that it's ok to spend time alone as some children with an ASD need that at times. Having a cue card with the key phrases on it that they can have in their pocket if they get nervous can be a good backup visual support too.
  • Carol Gray has written a good article on developing these skills in young children and a social story to go with it. It's called Friendships on the horizon: can social stories pave the road? It was published in the Jenison Autism Journal in 2002. Contact our Autism Helpline on 0808 800 4104 if you would like more information about this article and Social Stories.
  • Encourage your child to go to a teacher if they don't get the response they are looking for and talk it over with them, rather than with the child themselves. Explain why having an argument may affect any future attempts to play with this child. Perhaps provide them with a card they can hand to a teacher asking for space (see example in making mistakes below) when they are upset rather than having to talk through the issue.

Theory of mind

The child with AS does not seem to be aware of the unwritten rules of social conduct and will inadvertently say or do things that may offend or annoy other people. Attwood, 1998, p31

Children with an ASD find it difficult to 'put themselves in someone else's shoes' and understand that their beliefs, interests and experiences may be different to their own. This is where a lot of children can face conflict and where inappropriate behaviours begin. It may not be possible to teach your child to actually understand another person's point of view - the main goal early on is to get them to recognise that it may just be different.

  • Cut out pictures of ten famous people. Ask your child if they could spend the day with one of these people, who would they choose, why and what they would want to do? They will then talk about what appeals to them about that person. Then it's your turn, you pick - someone this may or may not be the same person - and explain why you chose them. Then do the same for someone you would not like to spend the day with and discuss that too. If you choose the same person, again say why you chose this person you will probably not give the same reason. This is a good way to illustrate how people can see the same thing - but think differently about the situation.
  • You can also do the same thing when looking at a picture of your child and a famous person and talking about how the two are different. You can discuss the physical differences then gradually move on to more abstract differences in line with how much the child understands.
  • Imagine that your child has £1 million to go on a shopping spree! Sit down with your child, some magazines, catalogues, scissors and glue and make posters about what you would buy with that money. Talk about what different people like, what their interests are, preferences, hobbies, etc.
  • An interesting activity can be to put an object (such as a toy or household object) in a box and cover it completely. Get the child to put their hands in one end of the box so they are feeling a particular part of the object and get them to describe what they are feeling. Then get someone else to put their hands in the other end, feel that part of the object and describe it. Then get them to compare the different feelings and guess what might be inside the box. They may get it right or have completely different points of view, but that is the whole point of the exercise. People can have different views depending on how much information they have and their perspective. Make sure you then explain how this can happen in real life; they will not automatically generalise this to a social situation.
  • If your child is open to role plays this activity can work really well. Make up some character cards with very clearly defined characters on it (an elderly lady, a boxing champion, a doctor, a little girl, a policeman, a footballer, a rock star, etc) and get your child to pick two out of a box. You then give them a scenario where the two characters have to come to an arrangement, eg the old lady and the footballer are going out for the day. What could they do? Where could they go? They then have to plan an outing for these two characters keeping in mind their own interests and needs. This is a good exercise for negotiating from extreme points of view.
  • Discuss everyday experiences that show people making choices and highlight them to your child. For example when picking out clothes, food preferences, choice of video/TV programme, etc.

Conversational skills/turn taking

Children with an ASD find conversational skills difficult for a number of reasons. Conversations are not predictable and involve an immediate response. This is why many children with an ASD avoid conversations with their peers and will often talk to adults or children much older or younger than themselves.

  • Deal with basic skills first, such as how to stand, which way to face, appropriate distance, etc. This can be supported with the use of visuals.
  • Talking about their particular interest. Many children with an ASD have a particular field of interest or topic that they know a lot about and they like to share this information with other people. However, they may need to learn that talking about the life cycle of a fruit fly, for example, for 20 minutes may not be all that interesting to many people. Create a little treasure box or bag with different topics listed in it, such as favourite animal, best holiday, the weather today, favourite singer, a movie you want to see, something you want to buy, etc. Instruct your child to take one out of the bag and begin a conversation based on that topic so they learn to talk about different topics outside their immediate sphere of interest. Throw that one out when finished and move on to something new the next day.
  • Being talked 'at' rather than talked 'to'. When talking to a person with an ASD you may feel like you are a very passive part of a conversation and can feel like you are being lectured at rather than actually spoken to. It's important for children to learn to take turns in conversation, using tangible items such as a 'talking stick' that someone must be holding to enable them to have their turn at speaking and timers to indicate the end of their turn.
  • Also important are 'out of bounds' questions. Many children with an ASD, due to their difficulties with theory of mind, may ask inappropriate questions such as "how much money do you make?" Or "why are you fat?" Some questions are dubious such as "how old are you?" You might have to say it's ok to ask children but not adults. Or if you ask "where do you live?" Explain that it's ok to find out an area, but not press someone for their house number and street name.
  • Some children with an ASD can develop quite a formal way of speaking which can make them sound older than their peers and may make them stand out. It's important to make sure they have responses that are age appropriate. You may like to practise with them: instead of "yes, that's very nice" - "that's wicked!" or "yeah, cool" instead of "I would like that" or the current appropriate phrase.
  • It's also important to distinguish the language used for different contexts, eg the way you address a classmate is not appropriate for when you see a head teacher. Role plays, dressing up and charts depicting adult/adult, adult/child and child/child conversations can be a good idea.
  • Game - 'never ending story'. This can be lots of fun done in a pair or in a group. One person starts and says one word only such as one, the next person says another word such as "day", and you keep going between yourselves adding one word at a time. This requires the both of you to listen to what the other person has said and tailor your response to keep the story going. These stories can end up being very silly and fun - but they are a great way to develop listening skills and spontaneity.
  • Board games are great for teaching your child to take turns as they are visual, there are tangible indicators that it's your turn (dice, counters, etc) and are generally a lot of fun. Winslow (see 'recommended reading and references' below) distributes a board game called 'Socially speaking' which explores social skills in the form of a game.
  • Turn-taking involves a number of skills being used at once. But the main skill involved in turn-taking is the need to be aware of the other person. They are critical to the game and without them it would not be a game - so we need to take their feelings into consideration or we will be left to play on our own.
  • Use pictures of people and draw blank speech bubbles. The child needs to use their observation skills to establish what the context is and work out what they might be saying or thinking.   

Making mistakes/coping with losing/conflict resolution

Turn-taking leads very well into talking about making mistakes and coping with losing. Children with an ASD experience a lot of difficulties in this area of social skills. As discussed in the theory of mind section, many inappropriate behaviours can stem from conflict. This can be due to a lack of social skills, but also difficulties with emotional language. If a child is getting frustrated it is often easier for them to yell and run away, than to say "I don't understand you, I need help". This skill is very difficult for a lot of children to master due to the core difficulties of ASD and needs a lot of persistence and patience.

Making mistakes

A lot of children with an ASD would rather screw up a whole piece of work and throw it away than put a line through it and start again. Dramatise your own mistakes so they can see that it happens to others too and that it can be fixed. Verbalise your feelings - "I am really embarrassed I dropped that". Then explain the remedy - "I will clean it quickly and get another".

  • Try to teach emotion management skills so that they can recognise the signs when they are getting upset. However, if they are not at this stage yet, label the feeling for them and direct them to a calming activity. You could also give them a tangible 'HELP' card that they can give to adults if they cannot verbalise their feelings themselves. Accompany the card with a social storyTM so they understand what it is for and when it is to be used.
  • Talk about publicly scrutinised wins/losses in the news, eg sports, awards, etc. Pointing out the mistakes of a person your child admires might help them to accept their own.
  • If a child has an argument or a fight with someone, it needs to be addressed and talked through. It is important that conflict resolution is kept factual. Emotional pleading will not work with children with an ASD. Stick to the facts if you are debriefing a child about an incident and help them address different parts of the argument that they may have missed, such as the other persons point of view, misinterpretations of words, etc.
  • Drawing an incident with speech and thought bubbles works really well for this kind of thing too. If two children have had a disagreement, draw them and their thoughts/ feelings/ actions/ speech. Having something visually to refer to can help reinforce recognition it can be done as a comic strip conversationTM, movie script, cartoon, story, etc. Their development of theory of mind is very important (see 'theory of mind' section above).
  • A lot of issues in this area can also be linked to self-esteem. A confident child is not going to be distraught about one mistake. But another child who already feels insecure in their abilities and the world in general may get very upset over the same mistake. Working on self-esteem and creating a bit more predictability in the general environment can help minimalise the impact of mistakes.
  • Talking through a game or an activity before it starts can help. If they are about to get involved with something where the goal is winning, talk them through 'being a good loser' and the nature of the game they are playing. They might be surprised to find out someone has to lose!

Recommended reading

    Arnold. E. and Howley, M. (2005). Revealing the hidden social code: Social stories for people with autistic spectrum disorders. London: Jessica Kingsley Publishers.

    Attwood, T. (1993). Why does Chris do that? Some suggestions regarding the cause and management of the unusual behaviour of children and adults with autism and Asperger syndrome. London: The National Autistic Society.

    Attwood, T. (1998). Asperger syndrome: a guide for parents and professionals. London: Jessica Kingsley Publishers.

    Baker, J. (2001). The social skills picture book: teaching communication, play and emotion. Future Horizons Inc.

    Csoti, M. (2001). Social awareness skills for children. London: Jessica Kingsley Publishers

    Dunn Buron, K. (2003). When my autism gets too big: a relaxation book for children with autism spectrum disorders. Autism Asperger Publishing Company.

    Dunn Buron, K. and Curtis, M. (2003) The incredible 5-point scale: assisting children with ASDs in understanding social interactions and controlling their emotional responses. Autism Asperger Publishing Company

    Gray, C. (2000). The new social story book: illustrated edition. Future Horizons Inc.

    Gray, C. and Leigh White, A. (2002). My social stories book. London: Jessica Kingsley Publishers.

    Grandin, T. (1999). Social problems: understanding emotions and developing talents. Colorado State University Fort Collins, Colorado 80523, USA.

    Howlin, P., Baroh-Cohen, S. and Hadwin, J. (1998) Teaching children with autism to mindread: a practical guide. John Wiley & Sons Ltd.

    Moor, J. (2002). Playing, laughing and learning with children on the autism spectrum: a practical resource of play ideas for parents and carers. Jessica Kingsley Publishers.

    Myles, B.S., Trautman, M.L. and Schelvan, R.L (2004). The hidden curriculum: practical solutions for understanding unstated rules in social situations. Autism Asperger Publishing Company

    Reese, P.B. and Challenner, N.C. (1999) Autism and PDD social skills lessons. There are five different books each looking at social stories to do with community, behaviour, home, school and getting along, aimed at 3-8 year olds. LinguiSystems, East Moline, Illinois

    Sainsbury, C. (2000). Martian in the playground. The Book Factory, London.

    Wing, L. (1996). The autistic spectrum: a guide for parents and professionals. Constable and Robinson.

    Winner, M. G. (2002). Inside out: what makes the person with social-cognitive deficits tick? London: Jessica Kingsley Publishers

    Winslow Publications and Incentive Plus also have a large collection of books on social skills and ASDs. Call Winslow Publications on 0845 230 2777 or visit their website at and ask for a copy of the Education and special needs catalogue. Visit the Incentive Plus website at or call 01908 526 120 for a catalogue.







    If you require further information, please contact:

    Autism Helpline
    Tel: 0808 800 4104 (open 10am-4pm, Monday-Friday)
    Minicom: 0845 070 4003

    Our Autism Helpline provides impartial, confidential information, advice and support for people with autism spectrum disorders and their families and carers.




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