Autism Social Skills Training: Strategies for Developing Empathy

Many individuals with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) have some level of difficulty with social communication and interaction skills. They may find it difficult to engage in conversations, understand implied social rules, respond to nonverbal cues, or see others’ perspective. Using autism social skills training can help your clients, children, and adults alike improve their skills in these areas.

The importance of acquiring such skills cannot be understated. “Mastering these skills can have a direct correlation to the opportunity to live a socially more fulfilling life,” said Sharon Koczaja, L.C.S.W.-R, Q.C.S.W., B.C.D., Client Consultant the Center for Spectrum Services.

By using a variety of instruction and interventions, you can begin to help your clients on their journey to acquiring these crucial social skills.

The objectives of autism social skills training

To help your clients address the social difficulties that often arise due to ASD, it’s important to integrate social skills training (SST) into your services. Through this set of intervention and instruction, you can help your clients with ASD gain the necessary skills and confidence to develop and maintain meaningful social relationships.

Through SST, clients are exposed to scenarios designed to help them better understand and act on:

  • Displays of empathy
  • Cultural norms around social interaction
  • How to behave in particular settings
  • Reading and understanding others’ facial cues and emotions

While this list is not comprehensive, it’s a good starting point for any SST program.

Depending on whether you work with adults or children, the interventions you offer as part of the client’s SST may vary. For children with autism, consider beginning their social skills training with more fundamental skills, such as:

  • How to take turns
  • How to create and maintain friendships
  • How and when to express their opinions respectfully

For those working with adults with autism, social skills training will look a little different. These individuals have already experienced a lot and thus certain behaviors, both good and bad, will have arisen.

With these SST techniques, you can help your adult clients learn how to:

  • Effectively handle conflict.
  • Better manage their own mental health.
  • Initiate and maintain conversation.

Regardless of their age, acquiring these skills will help your clients with their confidence and self-esteem.

Intervention and instruction for autism social skills training

There are several different methods you can use as part of a social skills training program for individuals with autism. According to Koczaja, the goal of SST should be to help your clients expand their ability “to read body language, facial expression, and tone of voice while paying attention to contextual cues, inferring others’ mental states, taking others’ perspectives, and demonstrating recognition and understanding of others’ feelings.”

The following four practices are evidence-based ways of teaching social skills such as empathy, conversation techniques, and more.

Behavioral skills training

Behavioral skills training, or BST, has been effective for teaching skills associated with transitioning to work and post-secondary life. Some studies have even documented generalization of skills to situations different from the actual training environment. BST is useful in training both job-related activities and social communication skills.

When using BST to help an individual with autism through social skills training, the following techniques can help them grasp the lesson’s concepts:

  • Describe the skill
    • For example, if you’re helping your client learn how to maintain a conversation, you can say the following:
      • “Sometimes people start to talk to you. Listen to what they say. When they pause, say something related to what they said. Pause and let them speak. Repeat until the conversation is done.”
  • Model the skill
    • Using role play, demonstrate how to maintain various conversations with different people
  • Provide a written/visual description
    • Offer a comic strip conversation or a written script of what to say
  • Practice the skill
    • Have the learner practice maintaining conversations with a variety of trainers in different situations
  • Feedback
    • Provide feedback on how well the individual was able to maintain a conversation appropriately.
  • Opportunity to practice
    • Create learning opportunities in practice environments with trainers and family members before using it in target environments.

Authentic environments

The end goal of any autism social skills training is that it will generalize to authentic environments without external support. This holds true in all work, education, and social settings.

Research has shown that the flexibility required for displaying appropriate social communication in these natural environments can be achieved by:

  • Using multiple models of proper behavior
  • Training and providing support across a variety of settings
  • Providing opportunities for contacting naturally occurring reinforcement in the target environments
  • Pulling back on interventions and supports at the appropriate time

Use of peers in autism social skills training

The goal of social communication skill intervention, and social skills training in general, is for individuals with autism to use these skills across the environments they encounter.

“It is important to begin by helping students recognize their own emotions and why it is important to connect with the feelings of others,” said Koczaja. “We must focus on teaching skills such as inferring the contents of others’ minds and seeing things from others’ viewpoints.”

Teaching and coaching these skills using people they encounter is a naturalistic intervention that should be used after the skill has been introduced and practiced in training situations.

Once the individual has some familiarity with the skill, peers can better demonstrate verbal and body language typical for a particular situation more effectively than those who are there for the purpose of supporting the individual.

Visual strategies

Visual strategies are effective ways to provide social skills training to individuals with autism in many different skill areas, as many can be literal learners.

Visual information such as words, pictures, and videos can help make abstract concepts more concrete for your clients. Video modeling and video self-monitoring are effective ways of illustrating social interactions that occur in different environments. This is because video modeling allows individuals to see how an interaction should go. Entire interactions can be viewed so your clients can see the result of the interaction.

Specific components of interactions can also be broken down frame-by-frame. If you use video self-monitoring, the parts that went well and those that did not can be addressed specifically.

Narratives

Social stories and social script fading are examples of narratives that can be used to address social interaction skills. Social stories can be used as antecedent interventions before a social interaction takes place. Social scripts can be used to help those who have difficulty matching verbal communication to the appropriate context.

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Jordan Baker

Content Marketing Manager, Relias

Jordan Baker is passionate about e-learning and helping learners achieve their goals. At Relias, he works with subject matter experts across disciplines to shape healthcare content designed to improve clinical practice, staff expertise, and patient outcomes.

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