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Social Behavior and Autism: Can Social Skills Be Taught?

May 16, 2024

When someone is diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), social cues, language skills and the ability to decipher what the other person or people are expecting, socially, can be difficult or misconstrued. This can equate to a delay in social skills as well as related behaviors, expectations, and interactions.

Social Behavior and Autism: Can Social Skills Be Taught? https://www.autismparentingmagazine.com/social-behavior-interactions/

What is social behavior?

Social behavior encompasses many aspects, some of which include an individual’s ability to communicate with others. Within this understanding, language skills, social cues, and the ability to understand what is expected, and respond with the appropriate social behaviors are necessary.

How do social behaviors impact children with autism?

According to Dr. Boaz Barak and Dr. Guoping Feng, the deficits that are common among individuals with ASD are having delayed and impaired social skills development, such as being unable to initiate interactions with others and develop relationships.  The ability to read or understand the feelings of others while displaying feelings themselves, a lack of interest in how someone else feels, developmental delays in speech and nonverbal interactions, and sharing joy and interests with other people.  

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With these delays, it can be challenging for children with autism to develop friendships and interact with other people in a way that is considered socially acceptable. They can also have a hard time understanding what is going on around them or lack the necessary social skills for daily tasks like answering a question or saying hello.

Language delays, such as a speech delay or impairment, can additionally make it hard to understand what the child is trying to say. Someone who is nonverbal wouldn’t easily be able to relay if they need something or have a question, even initiating conversation requires additional skills the child would need to learn.

What are some social behaviors typically associated with ASD?

With a delay in social skills development, individuals with ASD can feel uncomfortable and display aggressive and non responsive behaviors that can seem troublesome in the moment. These displays are usually caused by a need the child is experiencing and they are using their behavior because they don’t have the social skills necessary to state what is going on.

Examples of aggressive behavior could include, but not be limited to biting others or themselves, self injurious behavior like smacking their heads or bumping into things, as well as hitting, and kicking.

Non responsive behaviors can be as obvious as having no response to someone trying to interact with them to nodding their heads and responding with one word answers. When asked what was just said, they  cannot recall what the person speaking to them said and/or the instructions given.

Finally, some examples of troublesome behaviors could include wandering or running away from their parents, caregivers or teachers. They could start sensory seeking and seek out something like a mud puddle to not only splash themselves, but those around them. Or they could avoid sensory input and have a meltdown, throwing themselves on the floor kicking and screaming, or they could sit on the floor and choose to not respond because they are overwhelmed.

These are an overview, for now, and are examples of how some individuals may need support with social skills and social interactions throughout the day and with different experiences.

How can social behavior be taught?

Therapies like Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA), help individuals and their parents and/or caregivers teach social skills and ways that can manage sensory integration, for individuals that are feeling overwhelmed and become either sensory seeking or sensory avoidant. Applied Behavior Analysis handles social skills interventions, as well as social skills training for both the individual and their parents and/or caregivers.

An example of how children could practice both social skills they are learning in sessions and social interactions between the child with autism and other children is a social group.  In this setting, a small group of children with similar social skills and interests are grouped together to practice and further their skills.

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Children with high functioning autism would be with one or two other children that are at a similar functioning level. However, some may have challenges that one of the other children have a strength in and vice versa. Also, to keep the children interested and to let them know what to expect, the ABA technicians could use a visual schedule along with a token visual board.

Visual schedules include the steps within a specified time frame like social skills group, school, bedtime, etc.  Token visual boards are a way of easily rewarding the child instantly with a token. Social stories are a good way to teach social skills, too.

Once the child reaches a specified number of tokens, the child receives the predetermined reward they discussed with the ABA technician before they started. Due to the child receiving a visual cue and instant reward, when they participate in a specified action, the individual is more likely to respond positively and enhance participation within the group.

What is the difference between an ABA Technician and a BCBA?

  • An ABA Technician needs at least a Bachelor’s Degree in a related field such as psychology, education or social work. They have usually completed the RBT (Registered Behavior Technician) qualification 
  • A Board Certified Behavior Analyst (BCBA) is the individual who oversees the ABA technicians and requires at least a Master’s degree up to a Doctoral degree. They have gone through the Board Certification and received their Board Certificate

How can social skills be improved at home?

When discussing the social development and skills of children with autism there are people that might ask whether social skills can really be learned? The answer could be yes, with the right support put in place.

It helps to have a supportive environment at home, as well as therapy because skill building doesn’t end as soon as the child leaves the center or school. At home, they are given more opportunities, in a more organic setting, to practice what they are learning.

With parent support from family guidance at the center their child attends or an autism parent that has experience, they could receive all they need to become more social. As Ann Douglas once said: “If it takes a village to raise a child, it takes a village to support that child’s parent.”

Sansosti, F.J. (2009). Teaching social behavior to children with autism spectrum disorders using Social Stories TM: Implications for school-based practice. The Journal of Speech and Language Pathology – Applied Behavior Analysis, 4(1), 170-179.  https://psycnet.apa.org/fulltext/2014-51873-010.html                                                                                                    

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