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Teach social skills to individuals with autism spectrum disorder

Kathy Ralabate Doody, Ph.D. Assistant Professor, State University of New York, Buffalo State Exceptional Education Department SUNY, Buffalo State
Teach social skills to individuals with autism spectrum disorder

Most kids learn to work and play well with others in kindergarten. However, for individuals with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), getting along with others may be challenging. Educators often teach social skills to very young children, but for individuals with ASD, lifelong learning is extremely important. This social skill instruction should begin in early childhood and never stop.

Social skills are critical because social proficiency allows us to become better friends, siblings, co-workers, classmates and neighbors to others. For individuals with ASD to become valued and contributing members of our communities, social skill instruction is critical.


Do start teaching early and often

Social proficiency is a valued skill in our society. The ability to appropriately interact with others serves us well in life. Social skill instruction should begin in the early years, and continue as the individual grows and adds new skill to his/her repertoire. For example, parents often deliberately teach a young child to wave bye-bye, smiling and waving back each time the child demonstrates the skill, thereby encouraging him to do it again. However, at some point, parents stop actively teaching and reinforcing skills, assuming the child will learn incidentally. Children with typical development engage in incidental learning by spontaneously observing people and situations, and then internalizing the subsequent knowledge gained in that moment. But children with ASD rarely learn incidentally; instead, they require intentional, systematic and deliberate teaching. Hence, start teaching social skills early and continue for as long as possible.

Do acknowledge and reinforce appropriate social behavior

As referenced above, acknowledging and reinforcing a behavior effectively increases the likelihood for that behavior to occur again in the future. We reinforce social behavior all the time, often without even realizing it. A friendly face smiles at you, and you return the smile, effectively reinforcing the behavior. When an individual with ASD demonstrates socially appropriate behavior, be sure to point it out and provide behavior-specific social praise, such as, “I love the way you turned to look at me when I called your name?. During the beginning stages of teaching, also consider providing some type of tangible reinforcement for socially appropriate behavior, such as a small edible treat or sticker.

Do recognize and remediate inappropriate social behavior

Immediate and corrective feedback is essential for effectively teaching all types of children, but particularly critical for teaching children with ASD. Each time a child demonstrates inappropriate social behavior without an error correction, she will become more likely to make that same error again in the future. We want to prevent the inappropriate behavior from becoming durable, and subsequently indoctrinated into her social response repertoire. Therefore, quickly provide her with a socially appropriate, replacement behavior for future use.

Do use clear and concise language

When providing instructions or directions to children with ASD, it is important to use clear, concise and positive language. Tell children what they should do or say, versus what they should not, stating all requests in the affirmative. Why is this so important? A direction is easier to follow when we provide the child with clear, concise and behavior-specific language. For example, “wait your turn? is a much more effective cue than “remember to make a good choice and do the right thing.? The child knows exactly what behavior is expected of him. Keeping instructions brief and to the point will further alleviate any confusion to the listener, preventing him from becoming puzzled and bogged down by muddled and wordy language. For example, when teaching how to make and maintain eye contact, use specific, brief and effective language, such as, “look at me.?

Do provide visual cues and prompts

Individuals with ASD are strong visual learners and attend to graphic stimuli in their environment. Take advantage of this strength by providing visual cues and prompts to a child in social situations. For example, when teaching a child with ASD to recognize “angry,? show her photos of cross people with furrowed brows and pointed fingers. Recognition of emotions is essential to teaching social skills and should always be accompanied by video footage or photographs,demonstrating the target emotion graphically. Additionally, remember to pair words with gestures. When reminding a student to wait his turn, hold up your hand, palm-side facing out and towards the student. If he is not able to comprehend your words, he will most likely respond appropriately to your gesture.


Do not use childish or immature teaching materials

Individuals with ASD have a tendency to prefer television shows, movies or characters of a juvenile nature. Although a child’s developmental age may be less than his chronological age, it is still inappropriate to use immature and childish teaching materials. For example, when working on responsive smiling with a teenager with ASD, use a small pocket mirror or a school locker mirror instead of a crib-toy mirror. This type of mirror will provide the same learning experience but in an age-appropriate way. Also, it is inappropriate to use a Barney video to teach the fundamentals of sharing to a young adult, no matter how much she may like Barney. Instead, create your own videos for the young adult to view, preferably featuring the individual herself, and teach appropriate social skills through video self-modeling.

Do not assume a child who is non-verbal cannot or does not need to learn social skills

So many social skills rely solely upon gestures or actions and can be readily demonstrated by all individuals with ASD, even those who may be non-verbal or still acquiring speech. For example, nodding hello or signaling for someone to walk in front of you by displaying a sweeping wave of the hand are valued socially appropriate behaviors and do not require verbal speech. Do not overlook the importance of social skill proficiency in all individuals with ASD, regardless of language ability.

Do not disregard the Theory of Mind principle

When children have acquired the Theory of Mind mechanism (at about 4 to 6 years of age in children with typical development), they are able to understand that others may have differing thoughts, perspectives or opinions than themselves. Acquiring the Theory of Mind allows a child to put himself in the mental shoes of another, which is essentially the underlying premise of showing empathy. Children with ASD develop Theory of Mind later than children with typical development--if they are able to develop it at all. Keep this in mind when teaching social skills to children with ASD, and do not assume they have the ability to understand or feel the emotions of another.

Do not use the word, “don’t?

Research shows that children with ASD often attend to the last words they hear, rather than an entire sentence, which is yet another reason to keep directions short and to-the-point. Refrain from instructions, such as, “don’t hit,? as the child invariably will only hear the word “hit.? Phrases such as, “keep your hands and feet to yourself? or ?use nice hands? are much more effective in conveying to the child what we want him to do versus what not to do. Adults should make a conscious effort to phrase all directions, rules or instructions in the positive. This may take some rehearsal and practice, but will eventually become naturalistic and fluent.

Do not shy away from using rules

Rules have a bad reputation, and are often viewed as overly-prescriptive, stiff and punitive. However, when utilized properly, rules can provide clear and district guidelines for governing the behavior of children with ASD. When working with a child who, for example, tells his teacher she is fat, do not try to reason with him, or ask him how he would feel if someone said the same to him. Children with ASD often have a difficult time understanding empathy. Instead, devise two lists of rules that include the things I can say to my teacher out loud, and the things I only think to myself and keep in my head. Review the rules with the child to encourage compliance and adherence. And, as always, acknowledge and reinforce when the child demonstrates socially appropriate behavior in following these rules.

Jumping cartoon

Social skill proficiency is an integral and essential part of our daily life. By diagnostic definition, individuals with ASD often struggle to learn and demonstrate appropriate social behavior in academic, home or community environments. In order to prepare children with ASD to become valued and contributing members of society, we should be teaching social skills from a young age and continue to do so through the span of a lifetime. Social proficiency allows individuals with ASD to become better friends, siblings, co-workers, classmates and neighbors to others, which is a critical skill as our communities and schools become more inclusive.

More expert advice about Kids with Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD)

Photo Credits: © godfer -; Check Man, Cross Man and Jump Man © ioannis kounadeas -

Kathy Ralabate Doody, Ph.D.Assistant Professor, State University of New York, Buffalo State Exceptional Education Department

Dr. Kathy Doody received her doctoral degree in Special Education, with a concentration in autism spectrum disorder, from the State University of New York at Buffalo. She joined Buffalo State’s Exceptional Education Department as an Assistant P...

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