For many parents with children on the Autism spectrum, it can be incredibly sad to see their children in social situations. They know that their child has wonderful qualities and great things to offer others, but they know it is hard for a child's peers to see these traits because of their son or daughter's social skill difficulties. For children with ASD, skills that become innate to other kids such as taking turns, initiating conversation, and understanding the emotions of others can seem to be an insurmountable task for children on the Autism spectrum. Many parents struggle to effectively model and teach these skills, often finding themselves at a complete loss in terms of what they can do to truly solidify these skills in the minds of their young children. While many people have believed for years that children on the Autism spectrum lack an interest in social interaction, modern day research is showing us that this idea is shockingly inaccurate, and that children on the Autism spectrum who are not properly socialized can become teenagers and adults who suffer from depression and anxiety as a result of the loneliness they experience from not being properly included in activities. Now, more than ever it is important for parents to take an active role in not only teaching their child on the spectrum social skills, but also boosting their child's self esteem to help them feel that people will respond positively to them in social situations. Here are some ways that this can be accomplished, as well as how to redirect children when a situation becomes stressful.
1) Role Play
Role play can be an excellent way to not only help a child to learn conversation skills and and social skills, and also a way to practice appropriate responses for when things do not go as planned.
For example: Before another child comes over to play, do a role play with your child that allows them to practice how they might suggest a game or activity to a friend, but also what they might say if a friend isn't interesting in doing what they want to do.
The nice thing about role play is it can also be adaptable to older children. I.E you could role play a social problem with a teenager, such as what to do if there is only one video game controller and how the teen could share with their friend and work out how to do that.
2) Video Modelling
This is a great extension to role playing because it allows your child to SEE people practice social skills and comment on the interactions of those individuals.
For example: You can take a videotape family members playing a game in order to display turn taking. You can then watch the video with your child and say things like "his turn", "her turn." Afterwards, play a game with your child and say words such as "my turn" , "your turn" in order to solidify the social script.
Teaching these words can also be a great method of redirection when a child gets frustrated, because you can help them to understand that these words can be a great way to cue others in a group scenario. I.e.- Coaching your child to say "my turn" when a friend is holding onto a game piece.
Eye contact is an extremely important social skill and can be taught to children with Autism by trying to maintain eye contact while your child is on a swing. Stand a few feet away from your child and have them look at you while they are on the swing. Be engaging, smile, and compliment them on how nice it was to have them look at you. You will find that the movement of the swing can be helpful in terms of helping to keep them calm and focused.
4) Visual Prompts
Visual prompts are an amazing way to not only solidify concepts you are teaching your child, but also to help keep them calm in situations that might be stressful or involve transitions. Depending on your child's unique needs, you can find check lists, pictures, words, and cards to be extremely helpful. For younger children, this might be pictures that illustrate what will come next in their day. For older children, this might be a check list of steps to approach someone they might be interested in working with on a school project.
Visual prompts can also be a way to help in times of redirection, such as showing a child a picture that depict two choices of what they can do to solve a problem. When used this way, it is important to limit the choices to two options so as not to make the process confusing for a child.
5) Emotion Charades
Instead of playing charades with the traditional movies, books, characters from a story, try charades with emotions. Take turns acting out and guessing emotions. You can also decide to have your child draw out the emotion as if they were playing a game of Pictionary. This would be a great way to make social skills fun and something that you are learning and discovering together.
Being able to successfully redirect and anticipate frustration and challenging behavior is just as important as teaching social skills. For children and teens on the Autism spectrum many do better when they are aware of when a task will end. This can be achieved by specifying upfront the amount of time you will spend on an activity, how many toys you want your child to put away at the end of an activity, or telling a child before a role play how long a friend might come over to play. When addressing challenging behavior during any social skills coaching exercise, make sure to keep directions simple and concrete, and consider using visual prompts to show them a representation of the behavior that you wish to see.