Social skills: what they are and why they’re important for autistic teenagers
Social skills for autistic teenagers include:
- working out what other people are thinking and feeling
- understanding facial expressions and body language
- adjusting to new social situations
- solving social problems, like what to do when you disagree with someone
- understanding unwritten social rules
- sharing interests with other teenagers.
Whether your autistic child has one or many friends or prefers to be on their own, social skills will help your child know how to act in different social situations – from talking to a shop assistant to being part of family gatherings or having fun at teenage parties.
Your child’s friendships are likely to follow their developmental stage, rather than their age in years. This means your child might be less interested in the social and emotional side of friendships than typically developing teenagers. You child’s friendships might be based more on shared interests than feelings.
Social skills strategies for autistic teenagers
You can use a range of strategies to help autistic teenagers develop their social skills. Some of these strategies can also help teenagers who prefer to be on their own but need to learn social skills for everyday situations. Strategies include:
- self-management techniques
- social groups
- social media
- social skills training
- social stories
- TV programs
- visual supports
You and your child could role-play the skills you need when you’re in a shop, like saying hello, asking for what you want and saying thank you. You could also try something related to friendships, like asking a classmate to get together at the weekend.
You can ask your child what skills and situations they want to practise. Your child could also try role-playing with other family members or friends.
If your autistic child learns how to manage their own behaviour or what they need to do instead of relying on other people to prompt them, this can help your child develop social skills. Your child could record how often they do something using tick sheets, stickers or a wrist counter. For example, if your child is building their conversation skills, your child could tick a sheet after a conversation for each question they asked the other person.
Your child might like to join a local social and recreational activity or group to meet other autistic teenagers, share experiences and make friends. These groups can be a great way for autistic teenagers to practise social skills and develop their understanding of social rules. Your state autism service can help you find out about groups in your area.
Your child could also join a group based on their hobby or special interest. This can make socialising easier to start with, because it gives your child something to talk about.
Social media can help autistic teenagers connect with people they know from school or activity groups. It lets them take their time and think about what they want to say. It also takes away the need to read another person’s non-verbal communication.
Social skills training
Some autism therapies and supports are designed to teach and develop social skills. For example, Stop Think Do uses problem-solving strategies. The Secret Agent Society (SAS) is a program that you can get as a computer game, board game or group therapy sessions. The Program for the Education and Enrichment of Relational Skills (PEERS®) helps teenagers learn ways to make and keep friends.
If you encourage your child to have friends over and give your child and their friends a space in your home, this gives your child another way to practise social skills.
Social stories can be useful for explaining social rules. For example, you could use a social story to explain what a social kiss is and when it’s appropriate.
Social stories can also help your child think about things from someone else’s point of view. For example, you could create a story about how your child might feel when they can’t do something they like doing, or how a friend might feel in the same situation.
Watching TV programs might give your child some ideas of how to act and not act in different social situations. You could record an episode of a TV show and pause it to talk about what your child would do next in that situation.
You can use everyday situations to encourage your child to see situations from another person’s perspective and understand how they’re feeling. Throughout the day, for example, tell your child how you’re feeling, and why you’re feeling that way. And you can ask your child to describe how they think you might be feeling. For example, ‘I dropped my piece of toast on the floor. How do you think I feel? How would you feel if that happened to you?’
You can buy ready-made videos to help your child learn social skills, but you can also make your own.
For example, you could video:
- two of your friends having a scripted conversation that shows how to start a conversation and what to say
- your child taking turns, so that your child can watch themselves modelling the behaviour
- people using facial expressions, body language, tone of voice and so on, so you can pause the video and talk about nonverbal communication with your child.
Pictures can show your autistic child what to look for in different social situations. For example, you could use pictures to show how people signal that they’re interested in having a conversation. The pictures might include someone looking at you and smiling, or someone looking away and yawning. You could use photos of different facial expressions and body language.
Prompt cards remind your autistic child what to do in different situations. For example, you could pass a ‘My turn’ card back and forth to practise taking turns in a conversation. Or your child could carry a prompt card that lists how to start and end a conversation.
You’ll probably need to go over these messages many times with your child. Try to be patient with your child – and yourself. You might find it helps to share experiences and get support from other parents. You could try online or face-to-face support groups for parents of autistic children and teenagers.