Resources that Help Children with Autism Build Social Skills
Children with autism spectrum disorders (ASD) might find it especially challenging to make friends, read social cues and use verbal and nonverbal communication to navigate interpersonal situations. They may struggle with a lack of facial expression or eye contact, difficulty initiating interactions or the inability to keep up with the back-and-forth nature of conversations.
“Individuals with ASD often have difficulty developing, maintaining and understanding relationships, especially with same-aged peers,” confirms Dafne Carnright, MS, LPCMH, family service coordinator at Autism Delaware.
Luckily, many resources exist that can help a child with autism develop stronger interpersonal skills.
Social camp for children with autism
Social camps provide a traditional summer camp experience, complete with swimming, crafts and games, while also catering to the unique needs of children with ASD. Autism Delaware, for example, offers a four-day camp for children on the autism spectrum that utilizes repeating schedules and assistive technology to assist campers. The camp also uses a challenge-by-choice approach that allows campers to try a new activity with the group or hang back until they’re ready.
“We have a team of special staff who are either teachers with autism certification or are related service specialists like speech-language pathologists, who have experience working with youth with ASD,” Carnright says. A low staff-to-camper ratio also ensures meaningful connections and personalized attention.
Summer camp for children on the autism spectrum provides naturally occurring interactions with peers and adults in a fun environment that uses strategic programming and support to boost a child’s social skills.
Applied behavior analysis (ABA) assigns social significance to behaviors and develops social, language, functional and academic skills that a child can transfer to his natural environment.
Beth Burckley, a board-certified behavior analyst at The Vanguard School in Malvern, PA, dispels the common misconception that ABA therapy is just one practice. “It is actually an umbrella term for behavioral psychology practices with many different techniques and interventions,” she explains.
Tracy L. Kettering, Ph.D., BCBA-D, senior director of intensive behavioral services at Bancroft in Cherry Hill, NJ adds, “When applied to autism, ABA treatments utilize science to increase appropriate behaviors such as language or social skills, or to decrease inappropriate behaviors such as tantrums and aggression.”
With an understanding of how a child’s environment affects her behavior, an ABA therapist can implement techniques to help make meaningful changes. These methods may include repetitive practices; positive reinforcements like verbal praise, high fives or snacks; and breaking down skills such as initiating social exchanges, maintaining conversation and asking follow-up questions into small steps.
“The most important feature of ABA teaching strategies is that they are individualized for the child and that data are collected on progress so that the teaching techniques can be revised if progress isn’t observed,” Kettering says.
Extracurricular activities that build social skills for children with autism spectrum disorders
Misty from Newark, DE has a 12-year-old son who was diagnosed with ASD before the age of 3. “Morgan has been in speech therapy for most of his life. Along with occupational therapy, he’s been getting behavioral therapy for the past four years,” she says. While Misty praises therapy for providing Morgan with communication tools and methods to cope with obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), anxiety and phobias, she credits his extracurricular activities with boosting his self-esteem and sense of belonging.
Morgan swims, takes karate classes and visits the local YMCA once or twice week. “I think being around other people and staying busy helps distract him from his OCD and anxiety. The more he does in the community, the more he builds up his confidence,” Misty says.
Morgan has had homebound instruction for four years, but he is beginning to interact with classmates at school. Misty attributes his ability to engage with them to the social skills he has gained through extracurricular activities and therapies.
Burckley stresses that supports for a child with autism should be an interdisciplinary process focused on evidence-based practices, including ABA therapy, occupational therapy, speech therapy and counselors. “It is important that these disciplines interact throughout the process,” she says.
Every child is different and requires a unique combination of strategies to overcome the social obstacles that often come with an ASD.
Ariana Annunziato is a communications major at Drexel University and a co-op intern with MetroKids.