Social Interaction for Children With Autism

Will You Be My Friend?

Making friends in school can be challenging enough for kids, but children with autism face even greater difficulties while learning how to interact with their peers. “[Children with autism] have to learn what we don’t have to learn … They don’t have some of the natural, built-in instincts we have to attract people,” says Gary Mesibov, Ph.D., a professor and director of Division TEACCH (Treatment and Education of Autistic and related Communication handicapped CHildren), a service, training and research program established at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill. The program has nine regional centers in North Carolina and affiliations throughout the world.

According to Mesibov, one of the “natural, built-in instincts” children with autism lack is finding social interaction enjoyable. Therefore, it is important for parents and teachers to make the interaction enjoyable for children with autism so that they will want to be around others more. Just as reading can be a difficult skill for typically developing children to learn and enjoy, children with autism often struggle with being comfortable around others and enjoying conversation or human contact. When helping a child with autism to socialize with his or her peers, it is most meaningful to “have fun first, then do it right,” says Mesibov.

So how can parents and teachers make social interaction enjoyable? When children with autism see their parents enjoying an activity, they are more likely to give it a try and enjoy it. Mesibov suggests initially using simple, mechanical activities that the child already enjoys, such as playing in a sandbox or swinging on a swing set, to promote interaction. After the child learns to enjoy the activity with a parent, he or she may be ready to have a peer join in. Once children with autism enjoy social interaction at home, they can start learning effective ways to communicate, play and make friends at school.

Learning to Interact

While attempting to teach social skills, however, it is important to fully understand what factors affect a child with autism’s ability to learn. Children with autism learn best when they are given concrete models and rules to follow for completing a task, says Mesibov. Yet such models and rules are not clearly articulated in social interaction, making it difficult for children with autism to participate or act appropriately. For example, a child with autism may not know to make eye contact during conversation and may look down while speaking with others. This, in turn, can affect how other children perceive and approach a classmate who is autistic.

Much of what people do socially not only lacks clear guidelines, but also often is spontaneous, imaginative, abstract and disorganized. Children with autism may have played a ball toss game successfully five times, but when the rules or progression of that game are altered in any way, such as more participants joining in or more balls being thrown, that child may not be able to easily adapt to the new rules. Many children with autism also have a delay in their response time, so keeping up with a fast-paced game or adjusting to a new rule can prove very challenging.

To help address the issue of understanding the progression of a game, particularly when it ends, Mesibov suggests having special ways to teach children with autism how to count down to the end of a game. For instance, in a ball toss game, facilitators can lay out five balls to be thrown. After the child has picked up and thrown all five balls, he or she will be able to tell that the game is over because there are no more balls left to toss. This will then help the child better understand game progression.

Motivating, Modeling and Observing

In Reaching Out, Joining In: Teaching Social Skills to Young Children With Autism (Woodbine House, 2001), Mary Jane Weiss, Ph.D., BCBA, and Sandra L. Harris, Ph.D., discuss methods of teaching social skills using applied behavior analysis (ABA). They describe ABA as “a special set of teaching tools that are especially helpful in helping children with autism learn.”

Motivating behavior is one category of teaching methods Weiss and Harris discuss and includes such approaches as using reinforcements or incentive systems. Reinforcements can be as basic as verbal praise for a job well done, while an incentive system might involve giving a child a type of token when a task is completed or a skill is learned. These tokens can later be redeemed for a special treat or reward (candy, coloring book, watching a movie) that has been effective in improving the learning abilities of your child.

The authors also suggest chaining behavior, or dividing a complex behavior into smaller steps in order to teach a particular skill, such as setting up and playing a board game with another child. In chaining, individual skills are taught one at a time with more skills being added gradually until the child can set up and play the game independently.

Modeling is another technique that works well in a classroom setting. Teachers and other students can demonstrate an appropriate way to perform a task, such as writing one’s name on a test or cleaning up after an activity. The child with autism can then follow this example while using the skills that he or she learned. Modeling a skill fosters interaction between children with and without special needs and allows a typically developing child with more social skills and a greater variety of experiences to help teach children with autism, says Mesibov. Giving children with autism enough time to observe other kids before jumping into a new activity will make modeling more effective. As an added benefit, this observation allows children with different needs and abilities to learn from each other and interact on their own terms.

Often, a typically learning child will need some guidance on how to approach and interact with a classmate who has autism. This is an issue that Leslie Carbo, a mother and fifth grade Language Arts inclusion class teacher at Pointers Run Elementary in Clarksville, Md., emphasizes to her students at the beginning of each school year. “Respect all students and be kind – nothing less will be tolerated,” says Carbo. “We should recognize and be grateful for the differences in all of us.”

This attitude of tolerance sets a tone of inclusion within the classroom for the entire year.

Tips teachers and parents can use to promote acceptance of differences:

  • Allow typically developing children to serve as instructional role models for children with autism or other disabilities, and reward students for helping teach a classmate how to do something, says Leslie Carbo, a mother and fifth grade Language Arts inclusion class teacher in Clarksville, Md.
  • Be explicit about what autism means, says Gary Mesibov, Ph.D., a professor and director of Division TEACCH (Treatment and Education of Autistic and related Communication handicapped CHildren). Explain to classmates that Mary has autism, which means her brain works differently. Next, suggest, “You’re good at playing this game. Can you teach Mary how to place this game?”
  • Tell children they can be “bossy” when it comes to teaching a classmate with autism, suggests Mesibov. Explain that this also means being understanding, patient and helpful, but that a classmate with autism will need the extra guidance.
  • Organize and initiate interaction between children with and without special needs. Children with autism are particularly hesitant to approach others, so suggest that other students initiate conversation, games and other activities, says Mesibov.
  • Experts at the TEACCH Center recommend giving children without disabilities the opportunity to experience what it is like to have a disability. This can mean wearing scratched glasses, walking around blindfolded, using a wheelchair or performing fine motor skills while wearing thick gloves. These experiences give typically developing children a chance to feel what it is like to have physical and developmental obstacles to overcome.
  • Do not move too quickly, says Mesibov. Parents and teachers need to remember how developmentally far behind children with autism are from other kids. Giving children with autism time to sit out of activities and observe their peers will gradually make them feel more comfortable with joining in.

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