While teaching children proper social interaction is something every parent does, those with children who are on the autism spectrum face a bigger challenge. Autism is a neurodevelopmental disorder that impacts communication — both verbal and nonverbal — and the ability to understand social expectations, to interpret others’ social cues, and to display one’s own social cues.
“We take for granted how complex social interactions are,” says Dr. Leslie Speer, Ph.D., a pediatric psychologist at Cleveland Clinic Children’s and program director for A.S.E.T. at Cleveland Clinic Children’s Center for Autism. “We interpret many things: verbal cues, nonverbal communication, facial expressions, gestures, body position, etc.”
When it comes to teaching these skills, “everything should be individualized; there’s no one size fits all,” she adds. “A child’s level of skills, age, and areas of need affect what supports we put in place. Older, higher functioning kids can go into a social skills group, but some kids are not ready for that. Sometimes we have to go back and directly teach all those individual skills.”
As an example, Speer says that for severely affected or very young children, the first step is directly teaching how to make eye contact, how to point, or how to make a gesture. “These are prerequisite skills you have to have and one skill often builds upon another, so if we jump in the middle and we’ve missed half of those steps, we aren’t going to have success.”
Keeping in mind that each child on the autism spectrum has their own unique needs, Speer provides some examples by age group of what parents can do to aid in their child’s social skills.
Preschool and Elementary Years: Structured Playdates
Children on the spectrum do better with short playdates and structured predictability. Speer recommends choosing a peer (and their parent) who will be sensitive and understanding of your child’s needs, and then involve your child in the planning process.
“Depending on the child’s ability and age, tell them who you’re inviting over and ask them what they want to do with their friend,” she explains. “Choose activities that they’ve done before, so you’re setting them up for success. Consider mapping out the order of activities in a visual way, such as with a visual schedule. This brings predictability and a sense of control — they know who’s coming and what they’ll be doing.”
Parents of both children should stay nearby and be on-hand to facilitate the social interaction, if needed.
“This is a great way to practice those skills in a very structured environment and familiar situation,” Speer says. “The hope is that after you’ve practiced this, down the road those skills are going to generalize to the playground, which is much less predictable.”
Tween and Teen Years: Education & Advocacy
As kids on the autism spectrum get older, navigating social interactions with peers can become more challenging. While parents and teachers may not want to bring attention to the fact that a child is different, sometimes addressing the issue head-on can be helpful.
“Other kids notice; they don’t need us to bring it to their attention,” Speer says. “They do need us to help them understand by giving them appropriate information. Different can be scary to kids unless there’s someone teaching them how to accept those differences and how to engage with them.”
She says that sometimes, if a child is verbal enough and comfortable enough, he or she can address their classmates, helping their peers understand them, their strengths, and some of their “quirks.”
“The more we can help peers understand and have appropriate information — and teach them how to engage — the more success and acceptance we’re going to have,” Speer notes.
“Sometimes it’s a matter of teaching these kids to advocate for themselves,” she adds. “If they’re teased or bullied, the schools need to address that and have zero tolerance, but we also need to help the student with autism know what to do in those situations: walk away, get help, ignore it, etc.”
Practice Makes Perfect
No matter the age of the child who has autism, public places — and the unpredictability they bring — can be a challenge. The key is working on social skills in a structured environment, and then eventually being able to generalize those skills across different settings with different people.
“It’s very hard to work on a skill in the moment, right there in public,” Speer says. “Social skills need to be practiced on a regular basis in an environment that’s conducive to learning. Then, we hope that when we’re in an environment where we need those skills, we have them.”