We have been working with families of children with autism for many years. A common concern among parents is their child’s difficulty with social interaction. This leads to problems at home, school, and in the community. We saw a need for an easy-to-remember method parents could use to help their children improve social functioning. We found that several available methods asked parents to purchase special materials or use specific jargon, which was sometimes quite complicated. Because you have enough on your plate we developed the PREP program. PREP for Social Success: A Guide for Parents of Children with Autism is a quick and easy-to-read book you can use to teach your child the skills needed to function in various settings.
As with many other behaviors, teaching your child a new skill requires breaking it into small, manageable parts. In this article, we want to share an example with you of how you can begin teaching your child how to make friends. With a new school year and Fall activities beginning, you may want to consider starting with one small component of a specific social skill so that you and your child can experience the success of mastering it.
This month in Social Skills Corner, we begin with a brief example of a child who has a long history of problems with social interaction, followed by an explanation of the PREP program and how it can be easily applied to this example:
Julia is in middle school. She has a mix of regular education and special education classes. Julia does not like attending the special education classes and describes the classes as beneath her. She likes the regular education classes because she is with the “cool” kids. She wants to be part of their group, but none of them pay much attention to her. She does not understand why they do not include her. Julia concludes the best way to have them like her is to be funny. Before class starts, she tells a joke, laughs aloud, and looks at her peers. She does not understand why they are not laughing with her. When the teacher asks the class to take out their books, she purposely drops her on the floor. When this fails to get a desired response, she makes a funny face when the teacher talks to the class. At this point the teacher asks her to leave the class because she is too disruptive. Julia leaves, but does not fully understand why. In the next class she asks one of her classmates why she didn’t laugh with her. The classmate gives her a funny look and tells her it’s because she’s weird. Julia is crushed.
The PREP program involves four easy to remember steps: PLAN, REHEARSE, ENCOURAGE, and PRAISE. We will give you a brief description of each one and an example of how these could be used to help Julia make friends at school.
- In other words, ask yourself, “What’s coming up?” and “What do I need to do to plan for my child’s success?” In this situation, Julia’s mother thinks about how to help her make friends. She asks Julia what she has been doing to make friends and discovers that Julia has tried to be funny. She realizes that Julia needs to learn some other ways to interact with and get attention from her classmates. She talks to Julia for a few weeks about the students in her classes. She does this to learn their names and why Julia likes them. By planning for the situation or event, you will feel more in control of the situation and will be able to prevent some problems that may arise.
- This is an opportunity for you and your child to practice skills she may need in the upcoming setting. Now that Julia’s mother knows the names of some of her peers, she tells Julia she is going to teach her some “key” phrases to initiate conversation with her peers by rehearsing. Some of the phrases may include “Hi Maria, how was your weekend?” or “Hi Justin, what are you doing tonight?” In addition to teaching her to ask questions, she rehearses how Julia can approach her peers by role-playing. They also role-play how Julia should react if a peer does not talk to her.
- You want to give your child encouragement and an expectation of success. This can include reminding your child of success she had in a similar situation. You will also want to provide her with encouragement just before the situation or event. In this case, Julia’s mother, prior to her leaving for school, encourages her to go up to one peer and ask her a question. She reminds her to “stick to the script” and try not to get too discouraged if the peer does not answer back. She tells her if the peer does not answer her to go to Plan B and say to herself, “Oh well, I’ll talk to someone else.” This will help to give Julia the confidence she needs to implement what they have rehearsed.
- The final step of PREP is to praise your child for using her new skill. We often take this step for granted because we are so relieved the child has used the skill and a good, positive outcome occurred. Letting your child know what she did correctly goes a long way in building self-assurance and the probability of that skill occurring again. So when Julia comes home, her mother asks if she asked a peer a question. When Julia replies that she did, her mother gives her a high-five.
In this example, learning appropriate questions to ask in order to get attention and interaction from her peers is a first step to making friends. After Julia has learned this skill, her mother can further refine it by working on other components of making friends.
The PREP program can be used in a variety of settings (e.g., home, school, sports teams, vacations) and for various ages. In our book, we give you a more in-depth description and further examples of ways to PLAN, REHEARSE, ENCOURAGE, and PRAISE. There are a number of techniques you can use for each of these four steps. We also believe that learning to identify and manage emotions is an important part of social skills and devote a chapter in our book to that topic. Our book ends with a chapter that addresses ways in which you and your family can deal with the stress you may be experiencing as a parent of a child with autism.
Dr. Jamie E. Carter is a clinical psychologist. Ahna I. O’Shaughnessy is a psychology associate. They are co-authors of PREP for Social Success: A Guide for Parents of Children with Autism. It is a social skills manual that provides an easy-to-follow, four step program to help your child improve social functioning and emotion management. It is available exclusively through Amazon Kindle at http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B00WQANRI4 and can be downloaded to a Kindle device, a tablet, or a computer.
You can follow them on Twitter @Prep4SocSuccess and on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/PREPforSocialSuccess.
This article was featured in Issue 53 – Working Toward The Future