Teaching Social Skills to Children with Autism
How to Teach Autistic Children to Start a Conversation
Many autistic children (including children with Asperger's and PDD-NOS) have a difficult time starting and maintaining conversations. Although these children are very intelligent and have high levels of cognitive development, their social skills may lag behind. In order to teach an autistic child the skills necessary to start a conversation, it is important to look into speech and language therapy, teach good communication skills, and use conversational techniques.
Using Speech and Language Therapy
Look into hiring a speech-language pathologist to assist in the development of communication skills.Speech and language therapies can help identify alleviate the communication difficulties faced by an autistic child, especially in respect to striking a chord and starting a conversation with others.
- Speech-language pathologists have the knack and expertise to help the child understand the nuances involved in starting a conversation and keeping it alive.
- They can help the child acquire social skills and the ability to start a conversation.
Understand that a speech-language pathologist can provide pragmatic language instruction.Pragmatic communication is about using language in a way that satisfies the situation and abides by the conversation's unspoken rules. Because many autistic children do not know and understand the basics of starting a conversation, it can be hard for them to acquire nuanced conversational skills of their own.
- Autistic children may not know how to maintain adequate distance from the other person, make eye contact, display facial expressions consistent with their feelings, vary their tone, modify their speech based on their conversation partner (e.g. using simpler words when talking to their little brother), and more.
- Speech language therapists can assist the child in pragmatic language instruction, bolstering their ability to make particular speech sounds and modify their speech and tone according to the situation and audience.
Get the child cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) to provide step-by-step instruction on social skills.This is a type of therapy in which social skills can be taught in a step-wise manner. CBT uses a step-by-step approach where autistic children are exposed to highly structured activities to encourage the assimilation of social and adaptive skills.
- These skills are imparted through highly structured activities in a step-wise manner for the children to assimilate and pick up.
- CBT can also help children handle or overcome anxiety and depression, which are common issues for autistic children. This can make them less afraid to initiate conversation, as well as improving general quality of life.
- This prevents them from committing mistakes and exposing himself to as many people as possible out of fear of embarrassment.
Try social skills training to improve your child's non-verbal communication.Teaching, training, and practice structured by a skilled therapist can improve the way a child interacts with others. Therapists can used techniques such as social stories, role playing, and other visual techniques to teach and prepare the child to open up and communicate better in various social situations. RDI is one therapy that helps with this.
- The therapy can include ways to help the child understand tone, eye contact, sarcasm, humor, hand gestures, and non-verbal cues.
- These therapies can increase the confidence levels of your child.
Teaching Good Communication Skills
Show your child how non-verbal language works.Autistic children are mostly verbal communicators. However, communication and conversation are not limited to words.
- Being able to strike the right conversation in the right manner involves non-verbal cues such as body language, tone of voice, facial expression, and eye contact.
- Let your child know that proper conversation involves staying on track, choosing a good topic, taking the conversation in a direction that is interesting to all parties, and being able to sense others' feelings and steer the conversation accordingly.
Talk about eye contact.Autistic people often have trouble with eye contact, and may find it distracting or upsetting to make.Explain to them that non-autistic people usually like eye contact, and teach them some ways to fake it. Let them experiment and find what works best for them.
- Ask if they are comfortable making eye contact. If they aren't sure, ask them to look you in the eye. A few autistic people can handle eye contact (but for most it is painful or counterproductive).
- Discuss potential places they could look to feign eye contact: at the person's nose, mouth, eyebrows, or chin. They may want to practice on you, or in the mirror.
Teach your child how to gauge the appropriate distance to maintain while having a conversation.Maintaining a good distance helps the other person feel comfortable. Autistic children may have a problem doing this, and tend to move too close to the other person. This can make the other person quite uncomfortable and does not serve as a good way to break the ice.
- The ideal conversational distance with an acquaintance would be about an arm's length.
Discuss the benefits of varying conversation topics.Autistic children tend to be focused and are able to talk about their passions for great lengths, while non-autistic children get bored with this. Explain to your child how to accommodate non-autistic people's need for varying topics.
- Using pictures, photos, cards, videos and computer apps, show them what a good conversation would look like and what the essential elements are.
- Teach them how to ask questions to make the other person keep talking. Sometimes autistic people have an easier time letting the other person lead the conversation, because it is less exhausting.
Assist your child in picking up non-verbal cues.Autistic kids might not understand the significance of emotional or non-verbal cues such as body language, facial expressions, and eye contact. Try teaching these as a game, just as you'd teach math or science.
- To assist them in picking up non-verbal cues, there are computer programs available that can be used to learn which non-verbal cues convey which messages and which emotions.
- This may also help them become more aware of their own emotions.
Talk about how to deal with hostile people.Many autistic children are bullied or antagonized, and while you can't make the bullies disappear from the face of the earth, you can help your child know how to recognize them and handle them.
- Talk about turning it into a game (e.g. pretending to not hear or mishear, responding to insults with "Thank you!" and a sweet smile). Explain that this can confuse bullies. Try role-playing some scenarios and helping them select a few favorite strategies.
- Discuss how to tell a grown-up, and what to do if the grown-up doesn't believe them or try to help.
- Teach the phrase "I'm okay, you're mean." They can say this to the bullies, and use it to remind themselves that the bullies are wrong.
Protect their self-esteem, and don't let them believe that they're defective.Many autism groups and resources are based on the deficit model, one which emphasizes everything that is wrong with an autistic person. This can hurt their self-esteem. Instead, tell them that they are different, that it's okay to be different, and they face unique challenges.
- Try phrasing it as accommodating non-autistic people, rather than stating that autistic ways of communication are wrong or inferior.
- You can even joke how non-autistic people are "weird"—it sounds odd, but it can really help them feel like they aren't broken.
Making Use of Conversational Techniques
Instruct your child on the use of conversation starters.Conversation starters are strategies that can be employed to strike up a conversation and maintain it. A conversation starter is like a practice kit equipping the child with all the tools necessary for them to initiate a conversation comfortably.
- These conversation starters can be designed to include all the "do’s, don’ts and how’s" of initiating a conversation.
- They can include what to address before starting a conversation, what to say to break the ice, what kind of topics to talk about depending on the age (what to talk about with peers, what to talk about with adults), how to start, how the conversation should go, what to avoid (as in interruption, monologuing, etc.), understanding the non-verbal cues, how to participate in the conversation, and how best to engage others.
- Conversation starters can serve as practice tools/material. A conversation map is one such conversation starter.
Use examples of conversation starters to build your child's confidence.Preparation helps autistic children feel less worried about conversations (which can be a very daunting task to them). Try role-playing some sample conversations. When the autistic child is supposed to start a conversation with a peer or adult:
- Identify the partner with whom the child has to interact.
- Identify the reasons behind their intention to interact with the child (is it to play, is it to discuss a subject, etc.).
- Identify the other child’s interests (meaningful interaction and conversation are possible only when the autistic child identifies what the other child’s interests are. Based on that, he can strike a conversation and keep it alive without boring the partner.).
Use the conversation clock to assist your child in following the rules of conversation.A ‘Conversation clock’ is an assistive tool that helps autistic kids follow the rules of typical conversation. The conversation clock works by coding the conversation into images that indicate who is speaking, at what pitch and tone, who is being interrupted, by whom and for how long, among other indicators.
- This serves to provide visual feedback, providing your child with an additional set of guidelines for conversation.
- The conversation is coded in varying colors to indicate the speaker.
- The size of the color grows when the voice of the speaker grows and overlaps with another color to indicate when a particular speaker is interrupting another speaker.
- This conversation clock acts like a mirror and puts everything in front of their eyes in a clear and understandable manner.
Keep conversations fun.Learning how to make conversation should not be frightening or boring to an autistic child. Respect their boundaries and find topics that interest both of you. (You need to accommodate them just as much as they need to accommodate you!) Keep things casual, lighthearted, and enjoyable for all parties.
- Always respect a child's boundaries. If they aren't ready to go talk to a group of kids, or are afraid of walking up to a teacher after school, don't push it.Most likely, they'll feel scared, and associate conversations with bad feelings instead of good ones.
- Respect their ability to make their own choices. Your child doesn't need to be "normal." It's more important that they can choose what makes them happy.
- Avoid over-teaching. If socializing becomes a long list of rules, unsolicited advice, and criticisms, your child will only feel more alone.
Allow your child to explore information and learn on the internet.Autistic people are often quite good at many skills that are related to computer use. Encourage them to explore the world and its people through the internet.
- They may find it easier to talk to people via text chats online. This is great—they can still learn about conversation that way, in a more nonthreatening setting.
- When they are equipped with good information and knowledge, they will feel confident to venture out and initiate conversations on their own.
Encourage budding friendships.Most autistic children want friends but may not know how. Take time each day to listen to your child, and offer tips and gentle encouragement. For example, if she mentions a sweet boy who would be a good playmate, suggest that she sit next to him at lunch. Talk to your child about potential playdates, and make it clear they can invite friends over (or they can ask you to call their friend's parents to arrange the playdate).
- Talk with your child about any playdates beforehand, so that they aren't alarmed.
- Sometimes autistic children are not interested in making friends. This is okay. They can still be happy. Focus on other things for the time being,and if they one day change their minds, you'll be able to offer your help.
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