As you begin to tackle the problem of teaching social skills to children with autism, remember that the lack of interest in social interaction is characteristic of the disorder of autism and not a behavior the student is doing to annoy you. Also, problems with social skills in children with autism are exacerbated by the extreme delays in speech and communication. Finally, as stated in an earlier chapter, children with autism are most likely to try new skills or new tasks that are directly and immediately reinforcing to them. Your challenge is to make social interaction and communication a meaningful and reinforcing behavior for the student.
Points to remember when you are trying to teach social skills:
In a way, social skills can be habits, just like learning to brush your teeth. You can teach a student to greet someone when given a particular discriminative stimulus. For example, each time you say “Say hi,” the student says “hi.” You can strengthen and reinforce this behavior in one-to-one teaching sessions and teach it across settings. You can fade the prompt or the discriminative stimulus so that the student engages in the behavior spontaneously.
In other ways, social skills are not just “behaviors” but rather are complex skills that require reading of nuanced social cues, facial expressions, body language and other non-verbal cues that occur a million times a minute in human interaction. But don’t let the sheer size of it overwhelm you—research says one step at a time, building to more complex skills.
You can make a list of all the pro-social behaviors the student will need in your classroom and in other settings in the school and teach them in one-to-one and natural settings as described above.
You can train typical peers to be trainers. You explain to the peers what you want the student to learn and then coach from the sidelines. Reinforce all for their attempts to teach and to learn.
Some older children with autism learn well from videotaped social scenarios. It plays to several strengths of students with autism, e.g., information presented visually or information that can be re-played as many times as needed and has predictable responses.
Remember that your students will learn prompted rote responses easily. What will frustrate you is their seeming inability to generalize to a similar situation or to be able to spontaneously use the skill. This comes with practice. In some ways, children with autism are like balloons: you keep putting air in and you keep checking to see if the balloon is ready to float; not until you have put just the right amount of air in is it ready to go. Many students with autism frustrate their teachers because a skill will be taught in the same way every day and the student shows no sign of ever doing what you are asking. Then, one day, the student does the skill as well as three others you didn’t realize you were teaching. Persistence, patience and pushing just a little will pay off in the end.
Students will have to be taught the value of interacting with you and others. Remember, these are children who find their own interests and pursuits absorbing. Why come out of my shell and interact? The rule of thumb here is that students with autism will do what is most expedient to meet their needs. You want to tie training sessions that focus on establishing social reciprocity to something that is highly motivating for the student. For many young children with autism, edible treats work very well. Others find “stimmy” objects very reinforcing. What you want to establish is that if you do what I ask, I will give you something you like and if you don’t do what I ask, there is no treat.