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 skills when they can have extraordinary skills in other areas. Here we offer information about autism and social interaction, teaching social skills, involving school and the local community, using structured programmes, practical ideas you can use at home, and where to find out more.
Find out about social skills 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
Many autistic children can be genuinely bewildered and overwhelmed in social situations. Social skills and social situations need to be broken down, explained, and practised so they can be absorbed at a level that makes sense to them.
What are social skills?
We all use a variety of social skills any time we interact. 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. A child who plays on their own is not being asked to use their social skills, which is why many children on the autism spectrum retreat to solitary play – it is uncomplicated and they don't make mistakes. Social skills are:
- conversational skills (greetings, joining a conversation, verbal turn-taking, listening skills, talking about a particular topic, awareness of personal space, ending a conversation)
- play skills (observational skills, joining play, turn-taking, sharing, compromising, conflict resolution, coping with 'no', coping with losing, reciprocal play, ending play)
- 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 (anger management and self-regulation skills, 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)
- friendship skills (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).
Dr Lorna Wing has categorised the types of difficulties autistic children 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.
Teaching social skills
What to teach
Start from the child's current level. 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.
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 autistic children will encounter in their learning is generalisation. Other children 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 on the autism spectrum, however, may not understand the similarities between tying their shoelaces at home and tying their shoelaces at school. They may need you to point out the similarities between the two situations. They may need to be re-taught skills, including social skills, in new environments and with new people.
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.
- 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. 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 child's 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 child's 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.
Your child's school
Involve the school in 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. Children are often more accepting of differences amongst their peers when they have more information.
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 didn't just automatically know the social rules, and, when I did learn them, I had to think about them all the time and who can keep up that sort of coping skill all the time?
Martian in the playground, C Sainsbury
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. 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 a learning support assistant currently sits with them in maths (in which they can work quite independently) but the child has no support during break times, you could explore whether the LSA's hours could be re-shuffled to support your child better.
Learn more about getting extra help in school.
Using your local community's resources is a great way to open your child's social networks. Look for any local interest clubs, chess clubs, sporting groups that your child might be interested in. Find autism-specific social groups in our Autism Services Directory. Getting a social care assessment for your child might help to open up other options.
Practical ideas for developing different social skills at home
Recognising facial expressions
Many autistic children 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.
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.
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. Here are some other ideas.
- 'Detective' game. Drawing chalk body outlines on the patio or a large roll of paper, identifying important body parts to look at when assessing someone's 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 – use your smartphone's camera to take photos and video to show your child children what they look like to others. Temple Grandin, a well known autistic public speaker, used to watch a lot of video footage of herself speaking in public, watching the audience for signs of boredom to improve her skills.
Recognising personal space and social boundaries
Understanding personal space and boundaries can be difficult for autistic people to understand: I hug my friends in the playground, why can't I hug someone I meet in the street? You may need to explain where and with whom it is appropriate to have different levels of body contact. This can be done by writing a social story on a topic such as 'why we hug our friends but not strangers'.
A circle concept can also be used. This is a visual way of providing rules about which people it is ok to hug and kiss, and which people it is not. Some children might not understand the different ways we can show affection: I like the look of that person, why shouldn't I hug them? If that is the case, you may need to provide rules or alternative ways to show affection, ie you can wave to people or in cases of people you do know, write them a card or letter.
If inappropriate touching is an issue, a rule needs to be quickly established that some touching is private and should not be done to anyone else. You may need to explain which parts of the body are 'private' and not to be touched. This can be done using a diagram of the body.
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 emotions 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 on the autism spectrum often respond to tangible concepts and colour coding can help them sort and categorise. 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.
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.
Ensure that the foundation skills (eg recognising facial expressions, body language, naming feelings) are there before moving on to the motivation behind emotion and understanding that people's emotional reactions can be different from one another.
Using a visual tool, such as a drawing of a thermometer, can be a really good way to teach children 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. It can then be placed in a prominent part of the house (eg the fridge, by the front door) 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. 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 interests.
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 Tigger, 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.
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.
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
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.
Asperger syndrome: a guide for parents and professionals, Tony Attwood, p31
Children on the autism spectrum can 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, or look them up on the Internet. 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, but giving a different 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, and their preferences and hobbies.
- 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.
- Make up some character cards with very clearly defined characters on it (eg an elderly lady, a boxing champion, a doctor, a little girl, a policeman, a footballer, a rock star) 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 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, can help with learning about turn-taking.
- 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'. 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 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
Children on the autism spectrum experience a lot of difficulties in this area of social skills. Difficulties with emotional language can lead to inappropriate behaviour. 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".
A lot of autistic children 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 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.
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 or story.
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 minimise 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.
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:
Mind reading: The interactive guide to emotions
Navigating the social world
Teaching children with autism to mind-read: A practical guide
Reading faces and learning about human emotions
Social skills training for children and adolescents with Asperger syndrome and social-communication problems
Do-watch-listen-say: Social and communication intervention for children with autism
Social skills programmes: An integrated approach from early years to adolescence
What did you say? What did you mean? An illustrated guide to understanding metaphors
Teaching Asperger's students social skills through acting: all the world's a stage!
The Incredible 5-Point Scale
Social skills for adolescents and adults
Communication tips for parents and carers
Behaviour – top tips
Social stories and comic strip conversations
Find apps and app reviews
Autism Alert cards are credit-card sized cards give information about autism and have a space for writing an emergency contact number.
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
The Incredible 5-Point Scale: The Significantly Improved and Expanded Second Edition, by Karin Dunn Buron and Mitzi Curtis
Incentive Plus sells social skills resources for early years, primary and secondary ages