For many children with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), succeeding academically at school is an achievement they work long and hard for. Sometimes, however, this intent focus on academic competence can lead parents and educators to overlook critical social skill development. This is most apparent on the playground and other places at school where large amounts of unstructured time leave children with ASD to sink or swim in a complex social environment.

Over the last twenty years, much research has indicated that social impairment is a common feature of ASD, and a common misperception is that these children lack interest in relating to others. Kids with ASD do not choose to alienate themselves – they are simply missing skills that are essential for developing meaningful peer relationships. You may have noticed some of these common social deficits:

  • Opening and closing a conversation
  • Initiating peer interaction and joining play
  • Decoding facial expressions and body language
  • Observing and mimicking appropriate social behavior in specific situations
  • Predicting and understanding the emotions and reactions of others

If you stop and think about it, these are not easy concepts, and in fact, most children succeed socially at recess or in the locker room because they’ve acquired these skills automatically through repeated exposure to real-life scenarios. Children with ASD, however, don’t have that ability. In fact, it is notoriously difficult for these children to acquire social skills that come to many of us naturally. In order to master social skills, children with ASD must be taught them explicitly, and have the opportunity to practice them again and again and again. This last point is a key one, because many children with ASD don’t master social skills simply because the adults in their lives arbitrarily decide that a certain number of trials should be sufficient and give up on the effort too soon.

It’s critical; however, that caregivers and educators make a concerted effort to teach social skills to children with ASD despite the challenges. Otherwise, they may find it impossible to interact with peers one-to-one, or in an informal group. Instead of eagerly anticipating unstructured play periods like other children, they might dread them. Over time, they might become anxious and depressed, and might purposefully avoid the very social situations in which they need to become competent. They’ll carry their deficits into adulthood and may spend their lives feeling lonely and rejected.

That desire to belong that propels most people to learn whatever it takes to fit in is not something that’s necessarily implicit in children with ASD. For some, this type of “social sense” may never be fully achieved. But in order for a child with ASD to grow into a well-adjusted adult, he must learn basic social functioning, even if he never gets to the point of emotional relatedness. Social skills are the entryway to all relationships that involve two or more people, from friend/friend and teacher/student to boss/employee and salesperson/customer.

For this reason, it’s unfortunate that social skills acquisition is not automatically included as part of most children’s school curriculum. However, with our guidance and persistence and the right training program, even the most emotionally challenged children can master effective peer interaction at every stage of the game, from the moments just before class starts and conversation in the lunchroom to locker room changing sessions and afternoon recess.