Kids with autism have a lot of trouble understanding social skills. Developing social skills should therefore be a priority so the autistic child fits into society and experiences less childhood stress. In this entry I’ll summarize some specific strategies for social skill development and how toys and games can fit into such strategies. The strategies I will talk about include:
- Having a child imitate your behaviors
- Using positive reinforcement to support desired social behaviors
- Using visuals to explain social skills
- Avoiding using toys and games that send conflicting messages
One strategy for teaching social skills is to have your child emulate your behavior. Non-autistic children naturally try to imitate what their parents do because they want to feel like grown-ups. This is why you’ll find such products as toy lawn mowers and toy vacuum cleaners at toy stores. (On a side note, isn’t it ironic that kids want to imitate doing chores when they’re young but don’t want to do chores as they grow older? But I digress…). For autistic children, getting them to imitate what you do is harder but this imitation can still be an effective strategy if used appropriately. Since autistic children tend to be fixated on certain toys, imitation might not work so well if you’re trying to teach them to imitate how you play a new board game or how you interact with a toy they’ve never seen before. The best way to apply this strategy is to use it on something they’re already familiar with. For example, if your autistic child is very fixated on toy trains, maybe you could teach them to imitate how you gently handle the toys, and put them back in the box when you’re done.
People and pets respond best to feedback that is specific to behaviors. Think of how frustrating it was to have that boss that said you needed to do better but never told you what exactly you were doing wrong, for example, or how you can’t train your dog to sit still by rewarding him five minutes after he’s stopped sitting. This means that if there’s a toy or game your child likes, and you want to use this as a reward for good behavior, give it right after a good behavior and explain what behavior you are rewarding so your autistic child doesn’t have to guess. Conversely, if you are trying to punish your child for bad behavior be specific about what the behavior is.
Children with autism tend to learn best visually, and also tend to have trouble retrieving words. This means they would rather see pictures than read a lot of text or hear a long lecture. Cue cards or other such games are therefore useful for incorporating into your child’s social skill development lessons. In this case, it may be useful to use video or video games as well, although keep in mind the dangers of overreliance on technology that I’ve mentioned in previous posts.
Avoid Conflicting Messages
Children with autism tend to think logically and in terms of rules. You can help them learn social skills by accepting and working with this tendency. This means that you shouldn’t introduce toys and games that showcase exceptions to a rule you are trying to hammer home to the child. For example, if you are trying to teach an autistic child not to throw balls at other kids, don’t introduce dodgeball. This will just confuse her!