Your child might find social situations difficult. Other children appear to know, intuitively, how to communicate and interact with each other, and many parents of autistic children struggle to explain why their children struggle with social interaction when they can have extraordinary skills in other areas. Here we offer ideas on helping your child with understanding emotions, conversation, play, and dealing with conflict. We also give you some top tips, look at at how you can help to reduce social stressors, and where you can find out more.

Find out about social interaction for teenagers and adults.

Autism and social interaction

The characteristics of autism vary from one person to another, but in order for a diagnosis to be made, a person will usually be assessed as having, along with other issues, persistent and significant difficulties with social interaction and social communication.

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

Martian in the playground, C Sainsbury, p8

Autistic children may:

  • appear withdrawn
  • appear indifferent to other people
  • prefer to play alone
  • accept contact if initiated by others
  • be difficult to comfort
  • approach other children but in an unusual way
  • use overly formal language and be ‘rule-bound.’

Trying to understand what others mean and how to behave can be bewildering, exhausting and stressful for autistic children. You can help to remove the stressors by:

 

Teaching social skills

Top Tips

  • Reduce social stressors where possible.
  • Start with the basics, and progress in stages.
  • Practise any new social skills with your child in a number of different places, and with different people. Autistic children can find it hard to generalise new skills in different contexts.
  • Link skills to real tangible situations, refer to examples, use people's names.
  • Ask school staff, or others involved with your child, what particular social difficulties they have observed.
  • Pick the time carefully when introducing new social skills. Avoid stressful times, or times when your child is distracted by a favourite activity.
  • Find apps to support your child's communication and read app reviews.
  • Get extra help in school with what you are doing at home and ask them to reinforce the learning. This will help your child to generalise the skills.
  • Ask 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 autism in order to increase peers' awareness and acceptance of differences.
  • If your child has an Education, Health and Care Plan, statement, Coordinated Support Plan or Individual Education Plan, it may be possible to add to the plan that your child needs extra support with social skills development, especially if your child's social skills are prohibiting their access to the curriculum. Plans should also include how the child can express themselves appropriately if they are disappointed or upset during a social situation.

 

Practical ideas for developing different social skills at home

Understanding emotions

Many autistic children will have an emotional vocabulary of happy, sad and angry. Start with those and then branch out to other feelings such as surprised, confused. You may find the Transporters DVD helps your child to do this, as well as to put different emotions into context.

Children on the autism spectrum often respond to tangible concepts so once you've come up with a list of feelings, you could categorise and colour code the list. Write negative feelings in red and positive ones in green.  This concept is used 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. 

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.

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.

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 Faceland about facial expressions.

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 autistic children 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 autistic children 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. 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.

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 when they are upset rather than having to talk through the issue.

Theory of mind

Autistic children can find it difficult to understand how others may be feeling and 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. Many autistic people can struggle with others coming to different conclusions or 'agreeing to disagree'. 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 and accept that.

You could do this by asking your child to compare a picture of a sibling or other family member with themselves 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.

Discuss everyday experiences that show people making choices and highlight them to your child. For example when picking out clothes, food preferences, choice of film/TV programme.

Conversational skills/turn taking

Conversations are not predictable and involve an immediate response. This is why many autistic people avoid conversations with their peers and will often talk to adults or children much older or younger than themselves.

  • Using a 'talking stick' that someone must be holding to have their turn at speaking, and timers to indicate the end of their turn.
  • Board games can help to teach turn-taking, as they are visual, and have real things that show that it's your turn (eg dice, counters).
  • 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.   
  • Game – 'never ending story'. 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 can help to develop listening skills.

Read advice about conversations, including different ways of addressing different people, deciding what to talk about, and when and how to end a conversation.

Making mistakes/coping with losing/conflict resolution

Autistic children might:

  • run away rather than asking for help
  • screw up a whole piece of work rather than put a line through a mistake

You could:

  • dramatise your own mistakes so they can see it happens to others, and that it can be fixed
  • help them to identify emotions
  • label any feeling which they don't recognise for them and direct them to a calming activity
  • give them a tangible 'HELP card if they cannot verbalise their feelings themselves.
  • 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.
  • keep conflict resolution factual. Emotional pleading will not work with autistic children. 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 person's point of view and misinterpretations of words.
  • draw an incident with speech and thought bubbles. 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 or story.
  • work on boosting their self-esteem and creating more predictability in the general environment to help minimise the impact of mistakes.
  • talk 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.

 

Structured programmes

There are many commercially available social skills programmes. Some are for individual use, some for groups. Here are some of the more widely used programmes in the UK:

Socialeyes

The Cat-Kit

Navigating the social world

What did you say? What did you mean? An illustrated guide to understanding metaphors

Skillstreaming

Talkabout

Teaching Asperger's students social skills through acting: all the world's a stage!

The Incredible 5-Point Scale

Socially speaking

More information

Friend or fake easy read booklet, Arc

The growing up guide for girls, a book by Davida Hartman

The growing up guide for boys, a book by Davida Hartman

Revealing the hidden social code, a book by Marie Howley and Eileen Arnold

Helping young children with autism to learn, a book by Liz Hannah

Incentive Plus sells social skills resources for early years, primary and secondary ages

Understanding social and communication difficulties - University of Leicester video in English (also in Urdu, Hindi, Punjabi and Bengali)

 

Last reviewed 21 July 2017.