Fun and joyful ways to develop social communication

By: Pritha Saha

The word “autism” has its origin in the Greek word “autos,” which means “self.” Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a developmental disability that can cause significant social, communication, and behavioural challenges. The term “spectrum” refers to the wide range of symptoms, skills, and levels of impairment that people with ASD can have.Children with ASD are often self-absorbed and seem to exist in a private world in which they have limited ability to successfully communicate and interact with others. Children with ASD may have difficulty developing language skills and understanding what others say to them. They also often have difficulty communicating nonverbally, such as through hand gestures, eye contact, and facial expressions. These symptoms have a potential to change over time. The signs of ASD begin in early childhood, usually in the first 2 years of life, although a small minority of children may show hints of future problems within the first year of life.

Why do children with ASD need social skill development?

  • Social skills will help the child with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) know how to act in different social situations – from talking to their grandparents when they visit, to playing with friends at school.
  • Social skills can help the child make friends, learn from others and develop hobbies and interests.
  • They can also help with family relationships and give the child a sense of belonging.And good social skills can improve thechild’s mental health and overall quality of life.

What Social Skills Do Children With Autism Spectrum Disorder Need?

It’s good for your child with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) to develop:

  • Play skills – for example, taking turns in a game or sharing a toy
  • Conversation skills – for example, choosing what to talk about or what body language to use
  • Emotional skills – for example, managing emotions and understanding how others feel
  • Problem-solving skills – for example, dealing with conflict or making decisions in a social situation.

Teaching social skills:

It is extremely important for parents and care givers to take the children for therapy as soon as the diagnosis is done and not delay as it can greatly hamper the child’s capacity to learn, the earlier the better. There are groups of professionals skilled to teach social skills to children with ASD, they are listed below:

  • Occupational Therapists
  • Behavioral Therapists
  • School Psychologists and Counselors
  • Remedial Education Teachers
  • Health And PE Teachers 

FunIdeas For Developing Different Social Skills At Home

Understanding social skills for Children with ASD:

The social customs, rules, interactions that general people tend to “pick up”, these are difficult to grasp for Children with ASD. They require mental maps or scripts in order to learn how to adapt to social situations.

Teaching them to acquire social skills involves practicing in realistic settings. Building cognitive linguistics is important, they need to understand how to start goal oriented conversations, talk in order to make friends.

Understanding emotions

Children with ASD have a limited emotional range of happy, sad and angry. You need to start with reinforcing these emotions and then move to the second set of feeling surprised or confused. Children with ASD respond to concreteconcepts better once they understand feelings. Start with the basics, and progress in stages. You could categorise the list of feels in a colour coded manner. This concept is used in comic strip conversations but it can be done with a list of words too. As their understanding increases, the number of categories also expands. It is important to reduce social stressors where possible. They need to be helped with labelling and understanding their own emotions.

Link skills to real tangible situations. Refer to examples using people’s names. Puppets, masks, paintings, cartoons etc, can be used to familiarise them with the association with each feeling to its expression. Different colours of cake frosting with the feelings associated, or baking cookies with chocolate chips forming an expression is a very creative way of learning and developing interest. Take photos of your child as they express and familiarise them with their own expressions. Try to socialize and get vocal in different environments as it is difficult for them to understand how to adapt to novel environments. Avoid stressful times to introduce social activities as distraction will be a major hindrance.

Visit the do2learn website which has a free online game Faceland about facial expressions.

Entering games/situations

The child needs to understand the concept of a game and learn that there will be a winner and a loser and he won’t always be the one winning or losing constantly. Always find compatible playmates for each task, finding a child that shares different interests may ruin the dynamic. Develop a script with the child and rehearse the conversation they are having when they have to ask someone to play with them and prepare them for alternate endings where they might have to listen to a NO.

Practice play-skills with your child by using toys to act out a scene. For example, you could hug a teddy, then feed teddy and put it to bed, have a tea party with a few soft toys, or create a story using a play set like a shop, petrol pump or airport.

Playing games together helps your child practise turn-taking, coping with winning and losing, and following rules. Younger children might like movement games like red light/green light, Simon says, hide-and-seek or tag. Or you could just roll, bounce or kick a toy or ball to each other. Older children might like to play table games like Connect Four, Jenga or card games.

Prompting your child to take turns and follow rules will help him learn. Praising them for this behaviour also helps. For example, you can say ‘My turn’ and ‘Your turn’. When your child lets you have a turn or follows a rule, you could say ‘Good job taking turns’ or ‘Well done for saying Uno!’

Theory of mind

Children with ASD have difficulty in communicating with children of their age so they try to get involved with people of the age of their caregivers. Parents can teach them board games in order to teach them to take turns. Drawing pictures with blank bubbles and making them fill out those by understanding the relevance of the situation is a good exercise.

Making mistakes and dealing with conflict resolution

Children with ASD have a tendency to escape when they have a difficulty, after losing they are more likely to destroy the entire piece of work. In this situation you can express your own feelings when you make mistakes in a loud voice in order to normalize it for them teaching them that it can be fixed. You can introduce a card system for them when they need help by handing over a card to you to seek help at that point. Be vocal about the wins and losses that happen all over the world in sports or politics in an understandable manner. Your explanation needs to be factual in nature, as pleading does not work with childrenon the spectrum. If there has been a disagreement between the child and their peer, drawing empty dialogue bubbles for figures can help them visualise an agreement.

Other Techniques To Help Them Learn Social Skills Are:

  • Role playing:Role-play can help your child learn and practise the skills she needs to play with others. For example, before another child comes to visit, you and your child could:
  • do a role-play where your child suggests what to play with her friend
  • play the games that your child and her friend might play.

Practise talking about things like what your child has watched on TV or what she did on the weekend.

For older children you could also try setting up situations that involve a social problem – for example, having one piece of pizza left over for two people. Then you could role-play possible solutions, like both people sharing the slice. Other social problems could include not liking what has been cooked for dinner, not having a turn on the computer, or losing a sibling’s toy.

  • Social stories:  Personalize the templates with your own photos to explain what to expect and how to act in a variety of everyday situations. Personalized Stories:
  • Going to Restaurant- Help your child know what to expect when they go to a restaurant.
  • Going to the Store- Help explain what to expect when your family goes to the store to your child.
  • Handling Bullying- Help explain how to handle bullying to your child.
  • Play Date-Help explain what to expect on a play date to your child.
  • Potty Training- Help explain how to use the potty to your child.
  • Taking Turns- Help explain the process of taking turns to your child.

Visual prompts: Thismight help your child learn new skills or remember social skills they have already learned. Depending on your child’s learning needs, visual prompts might be pictures, words, checklists or prompt cards.

For example, you could use words or pictures as prompts for different conversation topics, like a picture of a cat to remind your child to talk to their grandparents about their cat.

Or you could use picture prompts to help your child learn how to play a particular game. For example, pictures could represent different steps in a restaurant play sequence – take the order, cook the food, serve the food, clear the table, pay the bill.

  • Playing with other children: Begin with just one friend at a time and have a planned activity with a time limit – say, 60 to 90 minutes to start.

Members of the family can take turns to help the child learn how to speak, make them repeat words after them can be helpful as they learn talking to multiple people in different situations.Read and discuss about the book or story that was chosen, ask them how they feel about which character or situation. Ask them what happens according to them and see if they understand the context.Introduce the child to pop culture so that it has something to discuss or bond over with their friends or peers. Plan properly structured playdates in a controlled environment and observe the skills developed by the child.

Ask school staff, or others involved with your child, what particular social difficulties they have observed.Get extra help in school with what you are doing at home and ask them to reinforce the learning. This will help your child to generalise the skills.Destigmatize autism in school amongst the children by educating them about it. Develop buddy systems for the children with special needs.

It is important for parents to forget their own social assumptions about social environment and interactions in the process of building theirchild’s skills. There are certain behavioural and emotional factors they need to take under consideration in order to render to their child’s needs and train them without any barriers. Saying hi to someone you know after meeting them at a public play may come to you easily but not for thechild on the spectrum. They need to be taught every single (basic)etiquette. Get educated about the child’s condition, as having more knowledge helps to develop better ways of expression.To know that things aren’t about being right or wrong all the time, these words need to be replaced by ‘expected’ and ‘not expected’. Achild with ASDcan be enraged by being told that it’s wrong because they want to be right like all the other people. Tell them that they are expected that they reply to someone politely as they speak instead of that they are wrong when they speak rudely.Children need to be helped through the practice of social interactions; parents need to assist them on most of these interactions that are happening outside a therapy or training environment. Establish a reward system like the therapist does.Understand that these strategies and techniques are not the cure but it is a start towards making your child more independent. Reward when needed but do not overdo it. When the child makes a new friend by themselvesor holds up a conversation on their own thatis itself a reward and they should learn it.Develop a common language with your child, do not switch 2 different languages as it gets difficult for them to grasp. Social skills need to be practiced everyday little by little in a consistent order. Stick to the bunch of activities that are taught and do not introduce too many at the same time and overload them, learn to keep them fun in order to keep the child interested enough as it is very difficult to force activities upon autistic children.

Children who have pets are observed to be far better in developing social skills, communication and bonding happens in an unconditional manner which renders to the child’s situation. Tossing a soft toy/ball at them at every tiny accomplishment encourages them and is a good reinforcer. Compiling videos that display characters showing amiable or appropriate behaviour can be a great tool to teach social skills. Through improvisational theatre activities you can expose them to real life situations and see how they comprehend them in their own way. Use gadgets like phones tablets or any kind of screens as tools in order to teach them communications, use of emoticons can be used to teach them the semantics of a conversation. Let the child lead with the communication or social interaction in some situations and see how they approach their peers, reinforce positive behaviour or any improvement that you come across.

And whoever your child socialises with, it’s important that the relationships are based on acceptance and understanding.

Pritha Saha
Counseling Psychologist
Milestones Clinic, Kandivali West, Mumbai

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