Social skills are perhaps the most difficult area for any child with autism. Even the ones who are really high functioning are often diagnosed as having autism because this is the one defining trait across the spectrum that does not change. Unfortunately for most parents, it is also the most difficult to teach.
Because children with autism frequently avoid eye contact, they miss the little nonverbal cues that would otherwise help them clue in on what the other person is feeling and saying. To teach them about facial expressions, parents and teachers can use a series of flash cards that show emotions on cartoon faces. As the child becomes more able to distinguish between the facial expressions, actual pictures of people with the same facial expressions are used instead. Finally, parents and teachers can move on to showing the autistic child pictures of peers and family with facial expressions. All the while, they will hold the pictures closer and closer to their own faces when they ask the question, “Is this a happy face? A mad face? A sad face?” etc. The final transition then, is an easy one. The child is then asked to look directly at the parent’s or teacher’s face when asked a question.
There are also other techniques for helping the autistic child better understand his or her peers. Special needs teachers often incorporate situational stories into the child’s day. These are set up to examine possible scenarios on the playground prior to going out for recess, special events out of the routine norm for the school day, and any other time where it might be necessary for a child to “think ahead” about what might happen and how he or she should handle it if it does occur. It’s a preparatory move that helps the child with autism be less anxious and more comfortable in settings involving their non-autistic peers.
Empathy is the hardest thing to teach any child, and much more so with a child with autism because his or her entire world is encased in his/herself. Perhaps the only thing that can be done in these situations is to take “the teachable moment” and use it for good. What that means is that, when the child with autism has hurt someone or witnesses someone else getting hurt, the adult quickly steps in and asks them some very pointed questions.
“How do you think that person feels right now?” “Do you think they are sad because something hurts?” “What would you want someone to do for you if you were hurt?” “What makes hurts and owies feel better?”
Repeatedly using this technique every time an adult possibly can helps the child with autism become better acquainted with how others feel. It can be used with children who don’t have autism too. However, as is the case with every technique, repetition and consistency most definitely is key. Stopping and starting or not having every adult in that child’s life use the same techniques just upsets the child and causes other adults to quit following the strategies that can really make a difference in the child’s social skills.