There has been a dramatic increase, nationwide, of children diagnosed with autism spectrum disorders. An area of particular struggle for these children is the ability to understand and participate in social interactions. Many children on the autism/Asperger’s spectrum and many other students in general education settings demonstrate a need for explicit training in social thinking and skills. For this growing population of students, education begins with understanding social thinking and practicing social skills. Academic and social competencies go hand in hand; both are critical to success in life. When students struggle with social challenges, social skills are a relevant aspect of the curriculum and these skills enhance opportunities for academic learning. Competence in social thinking and group behavior engenders self-esteem, respect, a sense of belonging and improved access to inclusive settings.
There is a particular need for a systemic approach in which the lessons of social thinking are reinforced school wide to promote their generalization. A University of Indiana meta-analysis of 55 published research studies on the outcomes of social skills training for children on the autism spectrum indicated that results of the training were generally poor. However, programs held in typical classroom settings were more likely to result in positive changes than programs held in other environments. It is crucial that concepts and skills taught in training groups are reinforced in natural settings such as the classroom, the playground, and the school bus to promote and support generalization.
It is a myth that students on the autism/Asperger’s spectrum and those with social challenges don’t really care about forming relationships. The reality is that they don’t understand how to interact socially, to develop relationships and friendships. They need direct, explicit instruction in social thinking and practice in social skills. In order to provide a meaningful context, social thinking must precede social skills –otherwise the skills would be mechanical responses with little understanding of why and when to use them.
Students with social challenges would benefit from a special guide map–their own GPS to navigate social situations. However, there is no such GPS programmed to say “recalculating” when they commit a social misstep. They are lost and not “wired” to figure out how to get back on the appropriate path. Social skills alone will not help them find their way back. An understanding of social thinking and the context of social interaction give them a chance to “recalculate” and get to where they want to be.
What does it mean to have good social skills?
- Moving beyond spoken interactions
- Following unwritten social rules of the environment
- Sharing space with others
- Thinking about others
- Regulating your behavior to others’ expectations or thoughts