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Five Ways Adults Can Support the Social Success of Students with Social Learning Challenges

by Brenda Smith Myles

The importance of building and maintaining social relationships and friendships cannot be underestimated – they are an essential part of everyday life. Research is slowly becoming available indicating that all learners may benefit from possessing strong social skills. For example, one recent study of 10th graders found that "noncognitive" factors including social skills, work habits, and involvement in extracurricular activities during high school were at least as important as cognitive abilities (as measured by achievement test scores) in predicting their success in the worlds of work and education 10 years after high school (Lleras, 2008). Intentional and systematic support from adults for building and maintaining social relationships and friendships can be critical to all young people, and especially those with social learning challenges. Many learners with Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD), emotional/behavioral exceptionalities, and other disabilities can benefit from adults attending to their social knowledge and skills development, and from opportunities to practice social relationships.


Five Practical Strategies

There are at least eight areas in which learners need skills for social success (see Table 1). This article describes five practical strategies that can be embedded into a learner's day in a timely, efficient, and meaningful manner to support development of these and other social skills. Although developed specifically to meet the needs of those with social learning challenges, the strategies can also be used to benefit all learners. The five strategies are as follows:


Table 1: Partial List of Skills for Social Success
Skills Brief Description
Nonverbal communication Understanding gestures, facial expressions, voice tone, proximity, and so forth.
Theory of mind Understanding the perspective, beliefs, intents, desires, and other mental states of self and others.
Attribution Determining cause of events and the impact that individuals can have on these events.
Self-regulation Matching emotions to events, recognizing emotions in self, controlling impulses, and changing levels of emotions.
Relationship skills

Developing deep functional relationships using skills that include needs negotiation, toleration of differences, sensitivity to others; the desire to be around people more than wanting to engage in a specific activity with them.

Hidden curriculum Understanding and applying rules and mores that are typically not taught yet are assumed and expected.
Technical skills Applying skills such as making eye contact, staying on topic, greeting others, maintaining conversations.
Self-advocacy Having the skills to ensure a dignified existence in all environments, including effectively communicating wants, needs, desires, rights, and so forth.



Individuals with social learning challenges have complex needs. We also know that they have incredible potential. We must carefully analyze their needs, capacities, and interests, and teach the complex skills that will help them succeed in life. This will help to ensure that they will be ready for education, relationships, employment, and eventually, independent living to the greatest extent possible.



Buron, K. D., & Curtis, M. (2003). The incredible 5-point scale: Assisting students with Autism Spectrum Disorders in understanding social interactions and controlling their emotional responses. Shawnee Mission, KS: AAPC Publishing (

Jessum, J. E. (2011). Diary of a social detective: Real-life tales of mystery, intrigue, and interpersonal adventure. Shawnee Mission, KS: AAPC Publishing (

Lleras, C. (2008). Do skills and behaviors in high school matter? The contribution of noncognitive factors in explaining differences in educational attainment and earnings. Social Science Research, 37(3), 888-902.

Myles, B. S., Trautman, M., & Schelvan, R. (2004). The hidden curriculum: Practical solutions for understanding unstated rules in social situations. Shawnee Mission, KS: AAPC Publishing (

Paradiz, V. (2009). The Integrated Self-Advocacy (ISA) curriculum: A program for emerging self-advocates with autism and other conditions (student workbook and teacher manual). Shawnee Mission, KS: AAPC Publishing (

Wilde, L. D., Koegel, L. K., & Koegel, R. L. (1992). Increasing success in school through priming: A training manual. Santa Barbara, CA: Koegel Autism Center, University of California (

Brenda Smith Myles is a Consultant with the Ziggurat Group, Dallas, Texas. She is co-author of numerous books on learners with Autism Spectrum Disorders. She may be reached at



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Retrieved from the Web site of the Institute on Community Integration, University of Minnesota ( Citation: Palmer, S., Heyne, L., Montie, J., Abery, B., & Gaylord, V. (Eds.). (Spring/Summer 2011). Impact: Feature Issue on Supporting the Social Well-Being of Children and Youth with Disabilities, 24(1). [Minneapolis: University of Minnesota, Institute on Community Integration].

The PDF version of this Impact, with photos and graphics, is also online at

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