Family Matters  |  Catherine Omni

Social Skills Focus

"The art of communication is the language of leadership"

Children on the Autism Spectrum, and even those who aren’t, benefit greatly from regular and structured social interactions. Although all children with ASD will vary greatly in their personality and symptomology, they all have varying difficulties with social interactions. Interacting with others will at times come naturally to a lot of us, but your child may have a hard time engaging meaningfully with others, which can cause unsuccessful social interactions, or even avoidance of social interactions.

Social skills can be broken down into complex and basic social skills. Basic social skills are isolated responses to a single stimulus, such as saying “hello” to a friend, whereas complex skills are multi-stage interactions that include aspects of several different behaviours like verbalisations, body language, and facial expressions. An example of a complex social skill is noticing that someone looks sad, walking over to him/her, stopping the right distance away from his/her face, asking what’s wrong with sympathetic language, and waiting for a response. This string of behaviours might come easily to some people, but each behaviour requires a conscious or unconscious understanding of its timing and relationship to the previous behaviour.

Basic social skills are important and can be learned through observation of others. Complex ones on the other hand are difficult to learn through observation. They’re much more easily understood through experience and practice, which can be achieved through social situations that are structured, goal-oriented and facilitated.

Our social skills focus for this week is:

Initiating Relationships: Observation skills – what people are doing and starting a conversation – asking a question.

What is the Key Focus?

Observing what others are doing and reading their cues to inform action and response. Asking a question to initiate an interaction.

Why is this important?

This is an important skill for both developing a plan to initiate a conversation/interaction with others and in effect decrease the anxiety around starting a conversation. When we are able to observe what others are doing, we can make inferences (make a best guess) and then make a plan for interaction. This makes us feel more confident and capable of being able to start interactions (conversations) with others, and then when they are successful, we are more likely to repeat this again.  Picking up on social cues is a vital skill for social success!

Games to play:

Cranium Cadoo: This is a game where the children choose a card that gives them a visual prompt of something they need to "perform" for the other participants to guess what they are doing (similar to Charades™). The visual prompt varies depending on the child’s capacity though is based on a person performing an action.

This game is an excellent way to have fun while teaching your child how to put themselves in others’ shoes (perspective taking), think/guess what they might be thinking (Theory of Mind), and how to read social cues (among other social interaction skills!).

Build on your observation skills to then initiate an interaction through asking a question based on what you can see or notice the person doing. For example, you may notice someone who is walking their dog.  Questions could be as easy as “Cute Dog, what is it’s name?” or even more easy “What are you playing”. Depending on capacity, look for ‘clues’ (answers) and ask another question based on that clue (answer) to develop the interaction. For example, if the person answered “his name is Bingo, we got him from the pound”, you have two ‘clues’ to choose from to ask your next question. For example, you may say “Bingo?  That’s such a cool name, how did he get that name?” Or “Wow, you got him from the pound?  How long have you had him for?” And so on. Build on the last ‘clue’ to ask more questions to deepen and maintain the interaction.

Role play: Children can engage in a role play of ‘giving clues’ (answers) to others who are asking questions and also staying on topic. Parents can facilitate the interactions by making observations and prompting the children during the interactions using the “Dialogue” prompt below.

The children have the opportunity to engage in role plays of someone not giving enough clues (such as only one answer or a yes/no type answer), giving too many clues (more than around three responses/answers), staying ‘on topic’ (talking about what we are talking about) and going ‘off topic’ (talking about something random and not related).

The parents can throughout the prompting be asking the children about what their experience was like during the different roles (what it was like being the person giving the clues and/or what it was like being the person asking questions), as well as how they can express themselves more if they find it difficult or how to stay on topic and only give a couple of clues at a time.

Dialogue: Important words to use

  • What can you see them doing/wearing/playing?
  • How can you tell? OR What do you notice?
  • What could you say? OR Ask them about that?
  • That sounds ‘Off Topic’, remember the question was…
  • Using effective questions by using ‘what’ based questions. Avoid using ‘why’ based questions.

Take it Further: Things to be doing at home to reinforce the learning

  • Implement dialogue by prompting your child.
  • Model the use of the dialogue in your own situations throughout the day, make observations about things you notice of others.
  • STOP and LOOK: observe people on the TV, at the park, while driving in the car, out in the community and use the dialogue.
  • Have Fun! Role play with your child in starting conversations, pretend to be different people and give them feedback.

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