Social skills: what they are and why they’re important
Social skills for children include:
- play skills – for example, taking turns in games or sharing toys
- conversation skills – for example, choosing what to talk about or what body language to use
- emotional skills – for example, managing emotions and understanding how others feel
- problem-solving skills – for example, dealing with conflict or making decisions in social situations.
Social skills help all children know how to act in different social situations – from talking to grandparents to playing with friends at school.
Social skills can help your child make friends, learn from others and develop hobbies and interests. These skills can also help with family relationships and give your child a sense of belonging.
And good social skills are important for your child’s mental health and overall quality of life.
Strategies for helping autistic children develop social skills
Autistic children can learn social skills, and they can get better at these skills with practice. These ideas and strategies can help you build your child’s social skills:
- practice play
- social skills training
- social stories
- visual supports.
Play is one of the best ways to help children learn and develop skills, including social skills. When you and your child play together, it gives your child the chance to practise turn-taking, coping with winning and losing, following rules and more. You can use the strategies below as part of everyday play with your child.
You can practise play skills with your autistic child by using toys to act out scenes. For example, you could hug a teddy, then feed teddy and put it to bed, have a tea party with a few teddies, or create a story using a play set like a farm, petrol station or airport.
Younger children might like movement games like red light/green light, Simon says, hide-and-seek or tag. Or you could just roll, bounce or kick a toy or ball between you. Older children might like to play games like Connect Four, Jenga or card games.
Prompting your child to take turns and follow rules, and praising your child when they do, will help your child learn. For example, you can say ‘My turn’ and ‘Your turn’. When your child lets you have a turn or follows a rule, you could say ‘Good taking turns’ or ‘Well done for saying Uno!’
Practising a skill in different play situations will help your child learn to use the skill more broadly. For example, you can practise taking turns while kicking a ball to one another, feeding a teddy, putting pieces of a puzzle together, or playing a game like Connect Four or cards games like snap or Uno.
Give your autistic child plenty of praise and encouragement when you see them interacting positively with others. For example, when you see your child offer a toy to another child, smile and say, ‘Wow! That is so friendly. You shared your blocks with your friend and waited your turn’.
You can use role-play before playdates and other social events. For example, you and your autistic child could:
- do a role-play where your child suggests what to play with the other child
- play the games that the children might play together
- practise talking about things like what you’ve been watching on TV or what you did on weekend.
For older children you could also try setting up situations that involve a social problem – for example, having one piece of cake left over for two people. Then you could role-play possible solutions, like both people sharing the cake. Other social problems could include not liking what has been cooked for dinner, not having a turn on the computer, or losing a sibling’s toy.
Social skills training
Social skills training can help your autistic child develop social skills in a structured way. For example, the Westmead Feelings Program teaches emotions and social skills in individual or group therapy sessions. The Program for the Education and Enrichment of Relational Skills (PEERS®) is a program for young children who have difficulty with making friends and interacting with peers.
You might be able to get social skills training through your child’s preschool or school or in sessions with a psychologist, speech pathologist, occupational therapist or other health professional.
Social stories can also be an effective way to teach your autistic child skills like communicating and joining in with others. Here’s an example.
A social story about talking to my friends
Sometimes I want to talk to people.
I can talk to children.
I can talk to my teacher.
I can talk to my family.
I can talk to other grown-ups.
When people talk together, they need to be near each other.
When I want to talk to somebody, I can walk over to the person, look at them and say the person’s name.
I wait until the person looks at me.
When the person is looking at me, we can talk.
Visual supports might help your autistic child learn new skills or remember social skills they’ve already learned. Depending on your child’s learning needs, visual supports might be pictures, words, checklists or prompt cards.
For example, you could use words or pictures as prompts for different conversation topics, like a picture of a cat to remind your child to talk to grandparents about their cat.
Or you could use pictures to help your child learn how to play a particular game. For example, pictures could represent different steps in a restaurant play sequence – take the order, cook the food, serve the food, clear the table, pay the bill.
Helping autistic children use social skills in different situations
Autistic children can find it difficult to use social skills they’ve learned in one setting in other situations. For example, your child might be able to share pencils at home with their siblings but not at school with their classmates.
To help your child use skills at school, talk to your child’s teacher to make sure you’re both using the same prompts for your child. It also helps to practise the same social skills in many different situations – for example, sharing pencils with a friend who visits, or sharing pencils with a sibling at a café.