A psychology and mental health expert shares her top tips for how you can help your autistic child develop good social skills.
While it’s a common myth that autism causes a child to be anti-social, children with autism need and want to make friends. However, they lack essential communication skills to function socially with peers.
Many children with autism struggle with the following:
- Speech delay
- Trouble reading nonverbal cues
- Echolalia (repeating words and phrases of others)
- Back-and-forth communication
- Trouble understanding jokes or sarcasm
- Difficulty reading and understanding others’ emotions
While a child with autism may struggle with the above, leading to difficulties in social situations, it is possible to teach your child these vital skills through at-home activities.
Important social skills a child needs to make friends include:
- Play skills like sharing toys
- Appropriate body language like respecting personal space
- Choosing when to talk and what to talk about
- Managing emotions and understanding others’ emotions
- Dealing with conflict
- Making decisions
Five fun social skills activities
To help your child thrive in social situations, use these five easy and fun activities. The activities can be completed each day and worked into other exercises—perfect for incorporating into a daily routine with your child!
1. Act it out
All children learn through imitation. That includes children with autism because they are visual learners. The best way to show a child with autism how to use his/her imagination with toys is to show him/her.
You can do this by simply playing with toys alongside your child. But add in some imaginative play! For instance, show your child how to practice being a doctor with the teddy bear.
- Wrap bandages around the arm of the teddy-bear
- Listen to the bear’s heartbeat
- Sing the bear a song and gently rock the bear. Whatever makes the teddy bear “feel better”
By doing this you’re showing your child exactly how to play games using his/her imagination with a friend.
Turn-taking is all about sharing an item with a friend. Some children with autism often display issues understanding the concept of sharing toys with others, along with preferring to play by themselves. However, children need to be able to participate in sharing activities.
An entertaining activity that can be turned into a sharing activity is kicking a ball. As you kick a ball to your child say: “Your turn!”
Then, when your child kicks the ball back, say: “My turn!” This shows your child that activities and sharing can involve more than one person while still being fun.
3. Board games
Board games help build upon the concept of sharing by adding social rules to a game. All structured games have one thing in common—rules.
To play a game correctly, there are rules that need to be followed for the game to work. Sit down with your child and play a game of Candy Land, Connect Four, Jenga, and other games. By doing this you’re teaching your child how following rules can result in a fun time.
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4. Observe others’ emotions
Many autistic children tend to overreact or under-react to a situation. This is especially true in unfamiliar situations. Social situations, like going to the dentist, create anxiety because the child only goes for routine checkups once or twice a year.
If you want to help your child manage his/her emotions in a new or difficult social situation, try observing others’ emotions through videos. A video depicting social situations can help a child with autism see and understand the social norms of a situation and the emotions others are displaying toward the situation.
I’ve found my child really enjoys Sesame Street videos depicting social situations like going to the doctor, learning how to brush your teeth, what music class is like, and more. These are perfect for any child with autism because they show children in social situations.
Another option to view other’s emotions is through Social Stories.
Social Stories depict “appropriate” behavior in social situations and offer other benefits to children with autism like:
- Developing social skills like saying “please” and “thank you”
- Helping a child understand his/her own feelings as well as others’ feelings
- Helping regulate and manage emotions in social situations
5. Hula hoop boundaries
This activity is especially for children who have difficulties respecting the personal space of others. Some children with autism may stand too close to others, hit, or crash into people—largely due to sensory issues. To help remedy boundary issues, and help your child understand how to respect personal space, grab two hula hoops!
Here’s how the activity is played
- Place two hula hoops on the ground next to each other (or for social distancing purposes, go ahead and place them six ft apart)
- Have your child stand in one hula hoop while you stand in the other
- Explain that the hula hoop around him/her is “your space” and “my space”
- Now invite him/her to “your space” (“Would you like a hug?” or “Would you like to come closer?”)
- Once he/she is in “your space” give him/her a giant hug
This is a therapy exercise recommended by my son’s pediatrician to teach the concept of personal space. It’s a fun activity my son loves! I use hugs as rewards for entering into “my space,” and he still understands that after he’s done hugging, he needs to return to his hula hoop space.
Social norms and behaviors can easily be taught with the five fun at-home activities discussed above. Each of the activities needs to be practiced multiple times to help a child with autism gain an understanding of social norms. But the next time you and your child encounter a social situation you can both be confident in your child’s understanding of social norms and behavior.
This article was featured in Issue 123 – Autism In Girls