Autism and social skills in children

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Social skills are best taught under the conditions that the child finds you or a situation interesting and wants to engage you.

He was there sitting and playing with his iPad.

I was sure I was downright more attractive and interactive than what was in his hands. In my moment of jealousy (yes I was pitting myself against an iPad), I sprung up on him and suavely said “Let’s play!”

He looked at me indecisively, with glances darting from the Ipad to me and back to it. It was a moment of truth, was I more attractive than that black (or occasionally white) piece of equipment? “OK!” He said.

I felt I won the match.

To be honest, wouldn’t you hope for your child to come to you and initiate to play?

Wouldn’t you hope he/she is able to sustain a meaningful conversation?

Wouldn’t you hope he/she is able to navigate the social scene with deft and skill like Ben 10 or Dora the explorer?

It all boils down to social skills

Lacking of the intent and the “know-how” of how to socialise are the key challenges faced by children with autism. They have no qualms playing alone, being fixated with an iPad and having no or fleeting eye contact with anybody.

They tend to interact better with adults than children as adults understand them better and  “give in” more to them in various situations. However, their socialisation skills with children of their age are weak and even to the level of non-existent. Thus social skills development is a bridge to pull them into our world of dynamism, where children from three years old are commenting on their new toys and engaging with peers via play and social talk.

Now, the term “social skills” is what I called the coolest term to use but the least understood term. Most people or rather parents thought social skills are the antidote of autism. Well, technically it is. But what are actually social skills and how do you teach social skills?

Can you teach social skills? Find out on the next page...

Teaching social skills

Social skills are skills that we use to communicate with people, both verbally and non-verbally, through gestures, body language and facial expressions. In order for a child to communicate, first and foremost there must be the desire to interact. Hence, social skills are best taught under the conditions that the child finds you or a situation interesting and wants to engage you.

For a lot of children with mild to severe autism, the interaction is often restricted to requesting. While teaching requesting is important to avoid tantrum, having joint attention and the desire to interact are perennial for more meaningful interaction. So much so, I once came across a parent and she made a comment “I rather have a non-verbal child who is able to emotionally connect with me, able to show me hugs and affections, than a verbal child who is just disinterested.” My reaction?  I couldn’t agree more.

On the other hand, there are some parents who might focus too much on the academic and cognitive aspects of their children, and neglect one of the most fundamental need of human, the desire and need to socialise with others. The truth is once a child has the desire to socialise, all the language and cognitive skills taught can then be generalised to make them FUNCTIONAL in this dynamic world of ours.

social skills 2 Autism and social skills in children

For teaching high-functioning children social skills, the aim goes further with teaching the children how to detect subtle but significant verbal and non-verbal cues and responding appropriately to build a meaningful relationship. Essentially the children have to have the abilities to infer from the situation, read the other party’s emotion and use their deductive reasoning skills to propose a good reply. Well if you look at it, it is a bit like a detective work. While for most of us, these skills are intuitive, but it is a lot of work for our children.

Secret Society Social Skills Program

Fortunately these skills can be learnt and with lots of practice our children can be as socially skilful as Ben 10 or Dora the explorer. In May 2015, Our Clinical Director, Mr. Alex Liau and Social Skills Consultant, Ms.  Michelle Poh underwent training for Secret Society social skills program, organised by the Social Skills Training Institute (Australia). The program is drawn by Dr Renae Beaumont (PHD) who is an honourary research fellow at the Parenting and Support Centre, The University of Queensland.  Dr Renae has over 10 years of clinical and research experience working with children with autism spectrum disorders and their families.

In order to ensure the efficacy of the program in local context, Alex and Michelle will be fine tuning the program.  What makes our social skills program different from other service providers are that on top of targeting broad skills like befriending, learning to play well and lose well etc, we are targeting fundamental skills like reading of emotions, detecting of verbal and non-verbal cues, inferring from situations, deductive reasoning, logical comprehension, appropriate communication and much more. Last but not least, they ensure the fun factor to drawn out our children’s desire to engage. On top of the usual sessions, they will provide “homework” for parents to follow up so as to reinforce the child’s learning from the social skills classes.

While Alex and Michelle are formulating the “antidote”, for parents at home let’s not forget you have an even more important role to play: being more attractive and engaging than an iPad with the guidance of our social skills class.