By Jennifer Jacobs, M.S., CCC-SLP
Parents and teachers generally have sufficient contact with a child and observation of his social interactions to recognize symptoms of Autism Spectrum Disorder and the possible presence of social skills deficits. When a child’s social issues are not addressed, he may find it very difficult to interact with friends and classmates one-to-one; later, he may carry these social deficits into adulthood, and experience prolonged feelings of anxiety, depression, loneliness and rejection. For these reasons, it is critical to your child to assess any deficits and implement an appropriate training program as early as possible.
The Process of Assessing Social Skills Deficits
Taking your child to a speech pathologist or psychologist to conduct a comprehensive assessment is the first step to identifying social deficits and selecting the best training approaches to fit your child’s needs. The assessment process thoroughly examines the child’s current level of social functioning, using a combination of standardized tests and the practitioner’s own observations of and interviews with your child.
Typical assessment tests include the Test of Problem Solving (TOPS) and the Functional Communication Profile (FCP-R). Some practitioners also use Sam Goldstein and Elaine Pollock’s Social Skills Group Assessment Questionnaire, an easy-to-use tool that rates the child??s mastery of 23 social skills (e.g., beginning a conversation, interpreting body language) before and after a training program.
By evaluating the child’s unique social skills deficits through the assessment process, the practitioner can recommend and implement a customized training program that addresses your child’s individual needs.
Training Techniques and Methods
Based on the results of the assessment, the practitioner will determine the most appropriate place to begin treatment. For instance, if the evaluation shows that the child with ASD has difficulty engaging in a three-turn interaction with a single peer, the practitioner may develop a program that begins at the level of basic conversation and progresses to more advanced group dynamics. At this time, she will also select a training method that best suits the needs of the child. Various mechanisms for teaching social skills are widely available, ranging from no-technology solutions to high-tech training devices.
No-Technology Training Applications
Some of the more effective low-tech applications, which can be used by caregivers, educators, and practitioners alike, include:
- Emotions Scrapbooks: Recognizing the feelings and thoughts of others is often difficult for children with ASD. Emotions scrapbooks feature magazine pictures and photographs that show people participating in social situations while expressing their feelings. The goal is for the child to accurately identify how the characters are feeling based on their facial expressions and body language.
- Social Skills Workbooks: Workbooks and board games such as Do Watch Listen Say (Quill) and Boardmaker (Mayer-Johnson) are fun activities disguised as play. They encourage the development of skills essential to social functioning, including reciprocity, imitation, and conversation.
- One-to-One Thematic Play: Role-playing involves acting out social interactions that the child with ASD would typically encounter in an unstructured school situation. For example, the practitioner might ask the child to respond to a peer who has invited him to play kickball during recess.
- Social Skills Groups: Peer mentors in the child’s class can encourage him to interact with others. With the right guidance, mentors can also model socially appropriate behavior and show their support to the child with ASD in unstructured school situations.
- Social Stories: Single-themed narratives present social conventions to the child with ASD in the form of a brief story. For example, if the child has trouble on the swing set, a social story might explore this situation in detail, introducing the concepts of taking turns and asking a classmate to play. Ideally, the story is written from the first-person perspective of the child and sympathizes with difficult aspects of the situation (e.g., “It’s hard to wait my turn when I want to ride on the swing now.”)
We know from experience that observation, modeling, rehearsal, and reinforcement are the most effective methods by which to acquire and sustain long-term social skills. All of the no-tech techniques I just mentioned support one or two of these strategies, but in the last few years, technological advances have allowed for the development of high-tech training methods that incorporate the entire range of proven techniques.
High-Tech Training Applications
How do technology-based social training methods work? While precise applications vary, these techniques generally encourage skill development, improve skill performance, and reduce ineffective behaviors by allowing the child to learn through personal experience. Because they provide opportunities to pause and discuss information, to replay scenarios for greater recall and understanding, and to repeat exercises as many times as necessary, technology-based methods are typically very effective. Specific applications include:
- Voice-Recording Systems: These systems help the child with ASD to identify topic maintenance, intonation and perseveration. When a child is allowed to listen to himself speak, it is easier for him to understand and respond to the specific difficulties he may have in communicating with peers.
- Television Shows and Videos: Age-appropriate sitcoms or cartoons that feature dramatic emotions and social scenarios can be a useful way to model appropriate behavior for the child with ASD. If a caregiver, educator, or practitioner takes the time to discuss the characters?? actions and reactions with the child, television shows and videos can be a cost-effective and risk-free method for analyzing social interactions.
- Video or In-Vivo Modeling: Video modeling consists of having the child with ASD watch a videotape of models performing the target social behavior, while in-vivo modeling consists of having the child observe live models perform the target social behavior.
- Social Training Software Programs: All kids love playing on the computer, and games that depict social scenarios and ask the child with ASD to determine what should be said or done next are highly motivating. Available social training software includes the CD-ROM series from Social Skill Builder, which teaches children the rules of social communication. In particular, School Rules! Volumes 1 and 2 use interactive video sequences to imitate scenarios where children commonly interact with peers in an unstructured school environment. Programs like School Rules! allow the child to practice everything from the right amount of social touch in the locker room to appropriate lunchtime interaction, in a safe, non-threatening environment.
The Importance of the Right Training Program
Regrettably, children with ASD may never fully achieve a “social sense,” that desire to belong that propels most people to learn whatever it takes to fit in. But in order for a child with ASD to grow into a well-adjusted adult, he must learn basic social functioning, even if he never gets to the point of emotional relatedness. With your guidance as a parent, working closely with educators and practitioners in implementing the right training program, your child can experience effective interactions with peers and adults, and exhibit greater competence and confidence in all kinds of social situations.