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Social Behavior Development in Children
with Autism Spectrum Disorder
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In the last section, we discussed Intense Interests. These included controlling access to the interest and using the interest constructively.
Do you have a client who is struggling to teach social skills to his or her child with Autism Spectrum Disorder? Is he or she wondering how to explain social nuances that are usually very subtle, such as polite conversation?
In this section, we will discuss How to Build Basic Social Skills. This will include being specific, observing social signals, using pictures, teaching emotional vocabulary and teaching how to behave differently with different people. As you listen, compare these with your own techniques.
Abner, age 40, and Judith, age 35, had a daughter, Mara, age 4, who had Autism Spectrum Disorder. Abner stated, "We’re not sure how to teach her to do some things...you know how some children can just pick up on stuff by watching other kids and adults? Mara doesn’t...she still screams when she wants juice! None of her playmates do this still…people think we’re spoiling her when we’ve been trying to discipline her the best we can! Clearly, this isn’t acceptable, but telling her to be quiet clearly isn’t working."
I stated, "Children with Autism Spectrum Disorder often need much more instruction in social rules and expectations than typical children do."
5 Successful Tools for Treating Autism Spectrum Disorder
♦ Tool #1 - Being Specific
I continued to state, "First, let’s discuss being specific. If Mara screams whenever she wants juice, you might have to explain that screaming is not allowed, but give her appropriate language to use instead, such as ‘May I have some juice?’" Abner stated, "You know…I never actually verbalized that screaming wasn’t allowed. I always just told her to hush. Will she really respond to me being that specific?"
I stated, "Absolutely, and you can practice these skills with Mara in the context of her friends." Judith stated, "Since you mention her friends, something else I worry about is how to teach Mara about reading people. It’s hard for her to recognize the differences in peoples’ emotions. Our daughter Rachel, who’s 10, just had her best friend move away, and she’s been kind of mopey lately. Mara can’t tell the difference." What might you have suggested to Abner and Judith?
♦ Tool #2 - Observing Social Signals
I stated, "Second, let’s discuss observing social signals. You might try helping Mara recognize the differences in peoples’ facial expressions. You can say, ‘Look, Mara! Rachel is sad because her friend moved away. See how her mouth isn’t smiling?’ Mara may not be able to understand right away, but gradually, she will learn to read these."
♦ Tool #3 - Using Pictures
I continued to state, "Yet another tool you might use to communicate emotional differences is using pictures." Judith asked, "Like flash cards?" I stated, "Exactly." Judith stated, "I’m a kindergarten teacher, and I use similar tools with my class, except after asking the children to identify the emotion, I ask them what things in their lives cause them to feel that way. I think it never occurred to me to try that with Mara because somehow I thought she’d never get it…but it’s worth a try."
♦ Tool #4 - Teaching Emotional Vocabulary
I stated, "You might also want to consider teaching Mara a lot of emotional vocabulary. You can relate the flashcards to these words. You might explain that behaviors and facial expressions tell us what emotions others are experiencing. This is the first step in helping Mara recognize her own emotions. She may know, for example, that she feels at tightness in her throat when she feels bad about something, but it may take her a while to associate that physical feeling with the word ‘sad.’"
♦ Tool #5 - Teaching How to Behave Differently with Different People
Abner stated, "Related to teaching Mara to read people, I’ve been worried about how to teach her different ways to relate to different people…physical boundaries, emotional boundaries…for most children, it’s just something they seem to understand intuitively. I mean, I know there are mishaps with every child, but a lot of children are shy, for example, with people they don’t know. Mara, on the other hand, doesn’t seem to be scared at all of complete strangers! While I’m glad she’s friendly, I want to make sure she understands how to be safe." How might you have responded to this predicament?
I stated, "As you know, behavior that’s ok for family isn’t necessarily ok for strangers. You might try another visual. Draw a picture of concentric circles: family in the middle, then relatives, friends, acquaintances, and strangers. You can discuss what greetings are appropriate for people in different levels of intimacy, what kinds of behavior are suitable for relaxed at-home time with the family, and what kinds of behavior are necessary when one is out in public."
Judith stated, "A lot of these things seem like they would be most effectively taught in actual social situations, like during Mara’s playtime. I’m concerned that the other children will tease her, though, because she learns differently." How might you have responded to this concern? I stated, "Playing with other children can provide great opportunities to teach Mara social skills. You might start with Mara’s sister, Rachel, if she’s willing. You might structure the rules of engagement, asking her not to tease or taunt Mara. Does Rachel understand that Mara has Autism Spectrum Disorder?"
Abner stated, "She understands that Mara learns differently, and that it’s difficult for her to understand sharing, for example." I stated, "If Rachel understands that, then she might be a good person with whom Mara might start practicing these social skills." Judith stated, "We want to honor Rachel’s space, though, and she can be a very solitary child." I stated, "Encourage play at least some of the time, but of course you will want to honor Rachel’s need for respite, time of her own and for time and space to play with her own friends apart from her sibling."
Do you have an Abner or Judith? Might playing this section for him or her be helpful? Do you have a colleague who might appreciate hearing this section?
In this section, we discussed How to Build Basic Social Skills. This included being specific, observing social signals, using pictures, teaching emotional vocabulary and behaving differently with different people. As you listen, compare these with your own techniques.
In the next section, we will discuss Techniques to Avoid. This will include yelling, overuse of time-out, subtle consequences and sulking.
DiSalvo, C. A., & Oswald, D. P. (2002). Peer-Mediated Interventions to Increase the Social Interaction of Children with Autism: Consideration of Peer Expectancies. Focus on Autism and Other Developmental Disabilities, 17(4), 198-207.
(AS is now ASD per DSM-5.)
Peer-Reviewed Journal Article References:
DeQuinzio, J. A., Ruch, S. A., & Taylor, B. A. (2020). Teaching children with autism to respond to joyful and fearful expressions within social referencing. Behavioral Development, 25(1), 17–29.
Field, T. (2017). Imitation enhances social behavior of children with autism spectrum disorder: A review. Behavioral Development Bulletin, 22(1), 86–93.
Lovett, S., & Rehfeldt, R. A. (2014). An evaluation of multiple exemplar instruction to teach perspective-taking skills to adolescents with Asperger Syndrome. Behavioral Development Bulletin, 19(2), 22–36.
Miller, M., Sun, S., Iosif, A.-M., Young, G. S., Belding, A., Tubbs, A., & Ozonoff, S. (2021). Repetitive behavior with objects in infants developing autism predicts diagnosis and later social behavior as early as 9 months. Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 130(6), 665–675.
Neimy, H., Pelaez, M., Carrow, J., Monlux, K., & Tarbox, J. (2017). Infants at risk of autism and developmental disorders: Establishing early social skills. Behavioral Development Bulletin, 22(1), 6–22.
Rodriguez, P. P., & Gutierrez, A. (2017). A comparison of two procedures to condition social stimuli to function as reinforcers for children with autism. Behavioral Development Bulletin, 22(1), 159–172.
Topal, Z., Demir Samurcu, N., Taskiran, S., Tufan, A. E., & Semerci, B. (2018). Social communication disorder: a narrative review on current insights. Neuropsychiatric disease and treatment, 14, 2039-2046.
What are five ways to build basic social skills? To select and enter your answer go to .