Developing social skills

One of the main areas of concern for an autistic person is social skills. It is one of three defining characteristics of this disorder along with social imagination and social interaction.

What are ’social skills?’

Social skills refer to the means by which we interact with other people and knowing how to behave in that situation. There is behaviour which is appropriate to a particular situation and then there is behaviour which is unacceptable.

We define ’being sociable’ as mixing with other people and enjoying their company. Consequently, many autistic people prefer their own company or engage in solitary activities which is less threatening and easier to do.

Social skills can be classed as:

  • Friendships: learning to mix with others, knowing who is a ’good friend’and who is not and coping with peer pressure.
  • Confrontation and/or difference of opinion: being able to deal with conflict or standing up for what you believe in is a useful skill. This also includes giving an opinion, being assertive and knowing when to walk away from an awkward situation.
  • Conversational skills: taking turns in a conversation, starting or ending a conversation and being aware of personal space. This also includes the use of gesture and body language to indicate a change in the tone of the conversation.
  • Emotions: emotions are an important part of a conversation. They are used to emphasise a point within a conversation or to show empathy/understanding with the speaker. This includes changing the pitch of your voice and understanding verbal and non-verbal cues.
  • Play: children benefit from play which teaches them a range of skills which are useful later on in life. These include taking turns, sharing, delegation and dealing with conflict.

Many of us learn these skills from imitating others (parents) and trial and error. We soon learn what works and what doesn’t!

We become proficient at these skills over time and learn the subtle undertones and nuances of any social situation.

But this is not the case for the autistic person who does not naturally develop these skills and as a result, remain aloof from their peers and other people.

They will avoid social gatherings or if they participate, will speak in a formal, rigid manner. They will often talk over others or fail to take an interest in other people and only talk about what interests them.

The importance of social skills

Social skills are an important part of anyone’s development as they enable us to form relationships with others, interact with the world around us and grow as people. We learn new skills from being with others; we make friends and build upon these friendships; we share experiences with others; we learn about giving and taking; and taking an interest in other people and their lives.

This all sounds easy doesn’t it? But the truth is that it is easier for some people than others, and especially so for people with an autistic spectrum disorder.

Many autistic people lack these social skills which prevent them from fully participating in society. The sad part in all of this is that they often have skills, highly developed in some cases, in particular areas but find social situations confusing and frightening.

Learning social skills

There are various ways to address this issue which include learning to interact with others in a variety of environments and taking turns through play.

Encourage your child to share a task or show them how to learn a new skill such as cooking which requires them to use social skills such as asking for help and waiting for a reply.

Schedule a series of sessions and keep them short and easy to do. These should be fun sessions in which the child receives praise and positive reinforcement so that they will develop in confidence.

Practise these skills at home but also involve your child’s school as well. Mention to them about these sessions and see if they will adopt the same approach at school. They can help your child to make friends and to learn self-awareness and the skills necessary to interact with others.

Another option is to see if there are any sports clubs or clubs which cater for a particular interest, e.g. computers, which your child may be interested in. This can be helpful if your child has a type of autism, e.g. high functioning autism which means that they will have a particular area of expertise.

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