What Are Social Skills for Autism?

I spoke at a conference recently about social skills for autism. Learning social skills is challenging for students with Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD).  Social skills are identified as a prime area for educational intervention.  But what are social skills?

Before determining HOW to teach, it’s critical to decide WHAT to teach.  What areas need to be considered?

Do academics get in the way?

The problem is that it’s so easy to get into the “academics routine.” Early education easily focuses on those early academic skills like colors and numbers and labeling body parts. Useful skills, but not necessarily what those on the autism spectrum need.

Here’s what I frequently remind people

We often have to teach skills to children with autism that we don’t necessarily teach to other children. Those other children seem to “automatically” learn them. They learn by imitation or observation or incidental teaching that is so incidental that we don’t even think of it as teaching.  Think of “waving bye-bye.”

But autism is different

Children with autism often need help learning some of those invisible, basic, core skills that just come naturally to others.

Core areas of social development are skills that lay a foundation for social relationships.  These skills are essential tools to become an interactive part of social relationships.  The core skills are necessary for participating in social environments with ease.

Think of the foundation of a house.  A strong foundation provides support for what is built on top.  Having strong core social skills will prepare students for learning more ways to have relationships and engage in social opportunities.

Core Skills for Social Development

Here are three core skills that are essential for successful social development.  These are basics which are important for students to have competence..

Establishing a Social Connection

By definition, students with ASD demonstrate challenge attending to people and responding to them.  In the first weeks and months of life, that bond between mother and child is the beginning of social development.  It is the giggle and coo and peek-a-boo of babies.

We talk about developing a bond between the student and other people.  It incorporates paying attention to people and responding to them.  High-level language is not a factor here.  Paying attention and responding is the goal.

Joint attention refers to making a connection with people and paying attention to the same things they are attending to.

Establishing a social connection has to do with developing that ‘give and take’ relationship with another person that the rest of social interaction is based on.

Communication Basics

Communication is what connects us to the rest of the world.  It is a complex process that encompasses understanding and expression and more.  Developing an effective communication system will give students the tools for social participation.

Understanding the environment is critical.  Comprehending the communication of other people is necessary for a student to participate in activities and interact appropriately with others.

Effectively expressing wants and needs, giving information, expressing emotion in appropriate ways and sharing experiences are important social communication goals.


Children need to develop the ability to manage their behavior and their emotions.  As they acquire an interest in the world around them they need to learn to modulate how they respond.

In the beginning, parents and other caregivers provide children with external controls.  They provide the structure so the student’s behavior will be acceptable in the environment.  Gradually, children learn to manage their own behaviors and emotions so they will be appropriate for the environment they are in.

Children can become active participants in social environments when they learn to modify their behavior for the situation.

What comes next?

Foundation skills prepare students for further learning.  Establishing a social connection, developing effective communication skills (both understanding and expression) and being able to manage and modulate behavior are the beginning.

When those foundation skills are present, students will have tools they need to participate in more social activities.  These core skills enable students to benefit from their social opportunities.

Keep this in mind. . .

These core skills are some of the first skills to address in early intervention.  But here is a caution.  Just because students are older, don’t be fooled into thinking it is not important to pay attention to core skills. Some older students still need to strengthen their core skills.  These are important skills to teach if the student needs to learn them.

This is just the beginning. . .

Identifying what skills students need to learn is the critical beginning for social development.  When students have gained competence in these basic skills, they will be more responsive to social opportunities.  Strength in these core social skill areas will help students prosper in social environments and social relationships.



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  1. Great article! It's important to recognize the value of social skills in our daily lives, both personally and professionally. Your explanation of social skills and the different types was very clear and informative. Keep up the good work!

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