Teaching Social Skills to Children with Autism – 3 Mistakes to Avoid

Social skill deficits are one of the most common deficits in kids with autism. In fact, since it’s one of the signs of autism, it almost always shows up in kids with autism. And I found that parents and professionals make 3 common mistakes when it comes to social skill instruction. So today I want to cover the 3 mistakes to avoid when teaching social skills to children with autism.

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I recently did a podcast all about teaching social skills to children and that podcast is episode number 17 so you may want to check that out, but today I wanted to do a very short video blog on the 3 mistakes I see parents and professionals making when it comes to teaching social skills to kids with autism.

Mistake #1: not starting with an assessment.  I found that parents and professionals just want to jump into placement decisions or even goals before an assessment. It’s very dangerous to say, “okay, we have 3 kindergarten students coming in and these are our usual goals for kindergarteners with autism in social skills or in language.”

It’s a very big mistake to just jump into PAT goals or standard goals. It’s also as a parent, a mistake to say, “I just want my child to be included into kindergarten. That’s really what I want. He can have an aide with him, but I don’t want any one to one instruction or any social skills instruction.” That’s jumping ahead to the placement and jumping ahead to goals before an assessment. So I would say focus on that assessment before you decide on how much, if any inclusion is going to be taking place.

People say, “oh, but he needs socialization.” Well, I’ve had clients where they’ve been put into regular daycare situations or regular preschools with or without support or even elementary school classes and they’ve either had major problem behaviors or they’re wandering around. I even had a little boy who was in a daycare situation unattended and he was wandering around licking the wall. That’s not socialization. That’s a waste of his time. So don’t jump to, we want this before an assessment. That’s the first mistake, assessing not just their social skills but their language, their self care, their academic skills if they are of the right age, their behavior problems. All of this needs to be weaved together before we develop any goals for socialization or teaching social skills.

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Mistake #2: trying to teach social skills that are way too high like manners, turn-taking, and greetings. When I was in the early intervention field working with birth to three year olds, it was very common for people to be doing “my turn.”  Non-vocal kids were taught to pat their chest and say “my turn, your turn” which is a very high skill. It’s a VB-MAPP level 3 skill. If you’re trying to teach manners, that is almost always going to backfire, especially in the beginning too. And even teaching greetings, you have to be really careful and do it systematically.

I created a procedure for teaching greetings, it’s in my online courses. But I think in general teaching social skills that are way too high and focusing on, “I want them to pretend play or do a four exchanges back and forth” is a problem. I’ve even seen programs like, “I have a cow” and then the child’s supposed to say “I have a pig.” That’s not normal conversation. So the more we try to teach skills like pretend play, turn-taking or reciprocal language, when the child is not up there, the weirder the language is going to get and the weirder the social skills are going to get too.  So we don’t want to teach skills that are too high.

Mistake #3: expecting social skills to just come into play without explicit teaching. Social skills are complex behaviors that need to be taught very systematically based on assessment, planning, intervening, and evaluating. So we don’t want to leave it by chance. We don’t want to just push kids into inclusion and expect social skills to just come along the way. I was at a conference once and they were selling T-shirts that said “I have autism” on the front and on the back it said “don’t waste my time.” And I think there’s a lot of well-meaning individuals out there trying to teach social skills, but since the skills were too high and they’re not assessing accurately for all kinds of skills, we tend to jump in and have goals for things that are way too high for the kids.

So those are the 3 mistakes. If you want to learn more, you can listen to my Turn Autism Around podcast and if you want to learn more about joining my online course and community, I’d love to invite you to a free online workshop at marybarbera.com/workshop. It’s for parents or professionals, such as behavior analysts. My free workshop does not include any BCBA CEUs, but my courses do. I would love it if you would check it out and see if adding some new knowledge from me and my courses and community might really help to turn things around more for your clients or children. If you liked this video, give me a thumbs up, share it, leave me a comment and I’ll see you right here next week.

Want to get started on the right path and start making a difference for your child or client with autism?