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IMPACT

Teaching Social Skills to Students on the Autism Spectrum

By William D. Frea

Teaching social skills to students on the Autism spectrum can be one of the most challenging and rewarding tasks that educators undertake. The social skills component of the educational program determines the functional success of every other goal. It is through social abilities that academic knowledge is conveyed in the real world. Even communication skills carry minimal power if social skills are not developed to ensure opportunities to communicate.

Three Components of a Social Skills Program

There are three critical components to any social skills program: (1) creating opportunities across the day for social skills to flourish, (2) preparing peers to support the use of social skills, and (3) planning direct instruction time to ensure the acquisition of new social skills:

  School Arrival Social Studies Resource Room Lunch Recess
Comment to Peer
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Ask a Social Question
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Compliment a Peer
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Start a New Activity
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Initiate a New Conversation
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Figure 1: Sample Social Skills Matrix indicating where social skills will be prompted and used during the routine course of the day.


Structure as the Critical Variable

Teaching social skills can become a challenge as the student gets older and peers appear more difficult to access. There is no time to waste when addressing the social skills needs of students with Autism, as these skills will be required for later success with maintaining jobs, relationships, and access to the community. It is often necessary to take an intensive approach to instruction. The use of Discrete Trial instructional strategies has resulted in numerous validated intervention strategies. While there are many techniques under the umbrella of Discrete Trial social skills teaching methods (e.g., self-management, video modeling, pivotal response training), all have the variable of structure to consider.

Skills can be learned under conditions of very tight structure or very loose structure. Tight structure includes a teacher sitting across from the student modeling new social skills. The student is asked to imitate the teacher. As the skill is practiced repeatedly, the student has many opportunities to practice and perfect the skill. Loose structure may involve the student in a natural social routine with peers. During this loose structure several opportunities can be created incidentally for the social skill to be practiced.

There are benefits and risks to each. Tight structure offers fast acquisition, while loose structure offers better generalization. However, under tight structure there is a risk of the student not understanding how to use the skill under more natural social conditions. While, under loose structure there is the risk that skills will take a very long time to develop as there are only a limited number of opportunities to practice. That is why you always need both tight and loose structure. A good program will have the right amount of tight and loose structure to give the student the acquisition time and generalization opportunities he or she needs.

A student who is currently moving slowly in social skills development may need at least half of his or her social skills instruction time to be under tight structure (e.g., one-to-one or small group instruction). This will move the program faster, and give the student the future skills needed to be successful under loosely structured social situations. As the student becomes more successful, more instructional time can move into the loosely structured and more generalized social opportunities. A student who is more rapidly meeting social skills goals may have a program that is 20% in tight structure and 80% in loose structure. Thus, if the student has a five hour per week social skills program, one hour would be in individual direct instruction and four hours would involve the skills being prompted and rewarded in natural social environments (e.g., peer-mediation).

Involving Peers

Involved peers can accelerate the success of the program. Lack of peer involvement can result in social behaviors that never truly become functional skills. The program’s success depends on peers being prepared to teach and support appropriate social behaviors. Peers need to be taught to model targeted social behaviors and reinforce new social skills with well-planned, natural, social rewards. The student needs to be taught to observe peers, follow peer instructions, receive feedback (e.g., praise, prompts) from peers, seek help from peers, and enjoy the company of peers.

A typical social skills program will target different types of initiations, responses, question asking, and skills to extend interactions (e.g., commenting, complimenting). It is ideal for peers to be involved in the selection of the social behaviors that will be taught. This results in better contextual fit when learning in the looser structure of natural peer interactions. The initial stage of teaching peers should be intensive, with the instructor spending some time with the peers alone. This time is spent modeling how the individual social skills can be taught. It is also a time to promote the importance of the work they are doing. This is a time for team building and motivation building.

Self-Monitoring

Self-regulation strategies have been very successful for teaching students with Autism to support their own use of social skills. Once a skill is learned in direct instruction, it can be self-monitored outside of those sessions. The student learns to observe and record his or her own behavior. Students can set goals for themselves and reward themselves for reaching those goals. They can learn to seek feedback, and to adjust their behavior in different situations. These strategies can begin to be introduced as early as second grade for students who are able to discriminate when they are and are not using a specific behavior in social contexts.

Visual Supports for Social Rules

While it is necessary to focus intensely on critical individual social skills, it is also important to instruct the student in broader social rules. It is not possible to teach every social skill and rule to the student at one time. Visual supports can be placed on walls, desks, or in journals or notebooks to allow the student to reference what is expected in a specific routine. For example, a card could be placed on the student’s desk that says, “If I need help I can…” The student can learn to depend on self-management for specific social skills, and on visual supports for the broader social rules that have not yet been added to the self-management program.

Summary

Difficulty with social skills is one of the defining features of the Autism spectrum. As we teach these students the other skills they need to thrive in adulthood we cannot forget that they will be isolated without social skills. These skills are learned through intensive practice and peer support in clearly identified natural routines. The social goals need to be overt, where the student and peer can readily label and model them. With the support of an active team including parents, teachers, and peers the student can reach his or her highest potential.


William D. Frea is a Clinical Psychologist and the Director of Autism Spectrum Therapies, Culver City, California. He may be reached at 310/641-1100 or by e-mail at bfrea@autismtherapies.com.


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Retrieved from the Web site of the Institute on Community Integration, University of Minnesota (http://ici.umn.edu/products/impact/193/default.html). Citation: Cadigan, K., Craig-Unkefer, L., Reichle, J., Sievers, P., & Gaylord, V. (Eds.). (Fall/Winter 2006/07). Impact: Feature Issue on Supporting Success in School and Beyond for Students with Autism Spectrum Disorders, 19(3). [Minneapolis: University of Minnesota, Institute on Community Integration].
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The PDF version of this Impact, with photos and graphics, is also online at http://ici.umn.edu/products/impact/193/193.pdf.

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