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Autism Training: Teaching Socialization

Interview with Dr. Michael Friga

Q: “I would like to know what autism training techniques have proved to be the most successful in helping a child who has a difficult time with socialization.”

What techniques are effective for children who have no learning problems, but just doesn’t ‘get’ social cues. This child doesn’t know how to respond appropriately or interact in a ‘normal’ way.  His peers sense something is different, and he’s often an outcast. He’s very sweet. Just looking at him or watching him, you’d never know.

A: Teaching socialization is one of the more subtle challenges for educators. Social interactions involve so many component skills that disentangling them can be perplexing.  A few general guidelines can help. First, move from structured to unstructured social opportunities. Structured means that the adult schedule, design and prompt interactions. For example, a “play date” involves a child visiting the house, playing a game, having a treat (maybe pizza or ice cream), and then leaving. At first, the adult directs the actions of both children. As the play partners become more familiar with each other and the activities, the adult guidance can be faded.

The second guideline is to follow the child’s interests and invite other children who share this interest. This may be a boy thing, but as an “old boy” myself, I can tell you that I enjoy socializing with my adult friends while playing a game or working on a project more than I enjoy standing around at a cocktail party making “small talk.” If your child is interested in Legos, have a Lego party; if he’s interested Magic Cards, have a “Magic Gathering.” One exception to this guideline is the screen-based activity. Computer and video games take a life of their own and often supersede social interaction.

If your child is a “gamer,” try to select cooperative over competitive games. While both can be used to foster social interaction, cooperative games require more interaction, group problem solving, and of course, learning to cooperate. One game I like is Forbidden Island, where all the players work together to collect the treasure before the island sinks. Games for older children including Arkham Horror or Shadows Over Camelot stir imagination and cooperation.

Role-Playing games provide another structured method for developing social interactions. Role playing requires children to take the perspective (and persona) of the character they are playing, cooperate with the other “player-characters” to achieve a mutual goal. I have used Dungeons and Dragons, a role playing game set in Tolkien’s Middle Earth (a.k.a. Lord of the Rings) as a vehicle for developing social relationships for otherwise withdrawn children. Of course this “intervention” requires an adult familiar enough with the game to act as “Dungeon Master,” a sort of MC, Story Teller, and Data Tracker rolled into one. When using D & D to develop social interaction, it is important for the DM to award experience points to players for talking and acting “in character.” These points are used to level up in the game. There are other role-playing games that I have used as well. How to Host a Murder is a sort of “who done it?” mystery, where each player acts the role of one of the suspects. There are scripted responses, but also require improvisational responses.

Weekly “game nights,” hosted at your house or at a community center, complete with pizza or other snacks are an excellent way to introduce children with spectrum disorders to social environments. It is important to remember guideline number two in choosing games: select games the child will want to play. Invite “neuro-typical” children to the game nights as well. I have found that there are many kids out there (and parents) who are even willing to take a night off the XBOX to good, old fashioned games.

Facilitated drama groups are a natural extension of the scripted social interactions introduced in role-playing games. Drama requires children to become aware of body language, gesture, eye contact and vocal inflection that contains social information that may not be conveyed verbally. Since acting involves scripts and coaching from the “director,” the child gets to practice and rehearse social interactions. And while these “scripts” themselves may not transfer to natural social situations, the awareness of non-verbal communication and body language often does. I have worked with many children with high-functioning autism and Asperger’s Syndrome who say that they have learned to “pretend to be social” through drama and role playing. I recommend the book, “Teaching Asperger’s Students Social Skills Through Acting: All Their World Is a Stage!” as a starting point for parents or therapists who are interested in starting a drama group.

Sports are often challenging for “neuro-diverse” children. Motor coordination and “social coordination” are required for success in team-based sports. Add to this the difficult sensory environment of a loud and echoing gym and a teacher or coach yelling lots of complex verbal directions for motor behaviors. It is little wonder that many children on the spectrum prefer to avoid group sports. By removing any or all of the obstacles described above, it is possible to interest neuro-diverse children in sports. Solo sports, like swimming, dance, and martial arts reduce the demand of social coordination and are often opportunities for the child to become successful in a physical activity. Small group sports that are held outside with a teacher or coach familiar with the challenges of following verbal instruction and sensory overload can introduce the child to social sports in a manner that is not overwhelming.

Over the lifespan, social skills are by far the most important thing we can teach neuro-diverse children. Learning from peers, holding a job, and finding friends and a life partner are far more important than memorizing quadratic equations and diagramming sentences. By moving from structured (adult-led) to unstructured (child-initiated) activities that are based on the child’s interest, children with autism spectrum disorders can gradually learn and develop the social skills that will open doors for the rest of their lives.

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