Sensory issues are often a problem among children with autism. Because of these, kids with autism either become hypersensitive (over-responsive) or hyposensitive (under-responsive). This affects how they respond to a wide range of stimuli that other children respond to on a daily basis.
These sensory issues often affect their social skills. This is the reason why it’s it’s hard for a kid with autism to interact with other people. To some, the lack of desire to interact with other kids makes children with autism look like they prefer to play alone. Others mistake a child with autism’s need for more stimulation as ADHD.
While it depends on a case to case basis, a lot of kids with autism actually want to form friendship with others. The problem? They just don’t know how.
But there’s one good news. Like everything else in life, social skills can be learned.
With that in mind, we put up a list of the Top 10 activities you can teach your child to help them build a “map” of social skills.
1. Staring contest
Kids with autism are known for having difficulty maintaining eye contact. The reason? They find it stressful or uncomfortable.
To help your child with this sensory issue, you can start a staring contest. Let your child stare at your eyes for at least 5-10 seconds and gradually increase the time. If your child is able to keep their eyes on you after the agreed time, you can reward him or her with positive reinforcement. Praise them or give them a token for doing great.
However, it might be that your child won’t be able to stare at you for long. Don’t stress your kid any more than what they’re feeling right now by forcing them to stare at you. Instead, try to place a pair of sticker eyes on your forehead and encourage your child to look there instead.
The eye stickers on your forehead may not be the same as looking at your eyes. But it removes the awkwardness that people find when kids with autism refuse to look at them.
It’s also a good training for your child to look at a person’s face especially if someone’s talking to them.
To reinforce this behavior on your child, don’t forget to compliment them on how it was nice of them to look at your eyes. Tell them how happy you are that they’re doing great. If you’re in for a bigger compromise, you can treat them later for doing the activity well.
2. Face games
Children with autism are still kids looking for fun.
One of the great ways to teach your kids social skills are face games. Like an acting class, you can make faces and let your kid mimic your face.
Start with easy to copy actions. Touch your nose. Cup your face. Roll your eyes. Stick out your tongue. Once your child is able to copy you, move on to making funny faces. Because kids with autism find it hard to read emotions, you can help them become familiar with it by showing it. Model how the different facial expressions look at a person’s face and have them imitate you.
3. Name game
This is social activity will help your child introduce themselves. At the same time, it will help them learn the name of others around them. You can start this game with your kid and your whole family.
To play this activity, gather every one of your family members in a circle. Just so all of you can see each other. Start by saying your name while pointing at yourself. Move to the next person on your right to do the same until everyone else is done.
This way, your child will be able to remember names faster and give them a head start when they start making new friends.
4. Play the game etiquette
This social skill activity is very simple but is an effective way to teach manners to kids with autism. It’s also a game that emphasizes the importance of being polite. The mechanics are also very easy.
To do this activity, you need to pick any game that you or your child likes, for example a board game. Before the game starts, there are three things that your child needs to do before playing.
1. Shake hands with their opponent.
2. Look into their opponent’s eyes (or their face if they feel uncomfortable).
3. Say the words, “Good luck.”
Once the game ends, the players will do the same thing. But instead of saying “Good luck,” they should say the words, “Good game.”
If your kid fails to do this with their opponent, the game will be considered null or void. It might not be easy the first few times. But the more you do it, the more your kid can learn the game until it becomes a natural social skill for them. Your child will also learn sportsmanship early on and earn the respect of their peers even if they have autism.
5. Print and play emotion cards
Reading emotions properly is another sensory issue among children with autism. It’s no wonder kids like them find it hard to recognize emotions.
With this activity, you can help your child recognize different expressions using emotion cards.
All you have to do is printout the emotion cards. Show your kids a picture of an emotion and tell them what it is.
Here are some of the emotions that your child must learn how to identify:
You can also incorporate the Face Game activity when you do this social skill game.
It’s alright if your kid gets stuck on a certain type of emotion because they can’t remember. Help them by giving them a context of what that certain emotion means.
For example, you could explain that “excited” means “feeling very happy and eager for something. Like with an upcoming trip.”
Your child may not get it the first time, but take heart. Don’t give up. Do this activity several times a week to help them get familiar with different emotions.
6. Role play
There are times when your kid with autism is not yet ready to interact with others outside.
They might still get irritated or uncomfortable having others around them. Or you and the family may be the only people your child feels comfortable with. If this is the case, you can teach your child the necessary social skills they need to learn by means of a role play.
To do this, act out a familiar scene or re-enact situations that already happened. Discuss with your child the many different ways they can handle the given situations especially if they occur in the future.
The key to doing this social skill activity is to be consistent. You need to practice often with your child so that the ideas and principles will stick to them. You can also walk through the different things they can do in a single situation. Even better, ask them what they would say during such a situation. This activity helps your child sharpen his or her social skills. It also reinforces their relationship with others.
7. Sharing time
In an elementary school setup, sharing time is a classic staple among students.
But for kids with autism, sharing time could be awkward. But it’s a social activity that you can do to help your child practice active listening. Sharing also allows them to discuss their interests especially to others.
To avoid overwhelming your child, start this activity at home.
Set a time and let your child share something that they find interesting. To teach them active listening, share something as well. Let your family members pitch in, too to make this social skill activity a success.
8. Video modelling
You can also use videos to teach social skills to your kid with autism. This activity is a good way to introduce them to new things or give them an idea of different social situations.
For example, if you want to bring your child for a haircut and they feel uncomfortable about it, find a video of the same situation and show it to them. Let them observe what happens. Ask your child about what they see. Point out the facial expressions of the people. This way, you can help your child become familiar with the same situation. You also give them an idea on how to behave accordingly.
Of course, you might need to give them cues on what to say or what to do when they are in a given situation. Just let your child know what to expect and be patient enough to teach them what they must do.
9. Tell them social stories
Social stories are a therapy-based activity to improve your child’s understanding of proper behavior. It also involves learning proper responses in a social setting.
Social stories, or social scripts, teach children with autism the proper behavior expected of them in specific settings. Settings can be varied like the playground, the doctor’s office, the supermarket, the school, etc.
Social stories usually point out details about a certain setting. Like a usual story, you point out what happens there and the behavior or action expected from them.
This type of activity helps your child pick up social clues that they won’t normally notice by themselves. It’s also a way to reduce difficult behavior among children with autism who are introduced to a new environment.
For example, you can read a story of what to do in the school playground before your child goes out to play with others. This will give them an idea on what to do.
10. Set an example
This might not sound like an activity at all. But when it comes to teaching your child social skills, nothing beats you becoming the role model and example.
Children with autism do not know the norms of social skills. Which is why it’s good to show them what appropriate socialization looks like. As a parent (or guardian), it’s important that you do your best to model positive behavior to your kids – autism or not – especially when you interact with others.
Be an example.
Engage people with small talk. Talk to them with a friendly smile from time to time. Look at people’s eyes. Be polite. Over time, you’d notice that your child will mimic what you do, too.
Also, you should take the time to explain to your child what you are doing and why. You might have to repeat yourself a few times. But the more you do this, the more your kid will become familiar with the appropriate social skills they need. You’d help them find a way to be friends and make connections with others.
Just a reminder…
Take note that children with autism have sensory issues that you need to be aware of to choose the right type of social skill activities for them.
Sensory issues and social skills activities for autism
Kids with hypersensitivity or over-responsiveness to sensory information avoid sensory experiences. You might see them covering their ears when the noise is too loud or wear only loose-fitting clothes. Others resist doing things like brushing their teeth, having haircuts or eating certain types of food.
On the other hand, children with hyposensitivity or under-responsiveness eagerly seek out sensory experience. Most of the time, they are the ones who always look for things to touch. In turn, they constantly move to rub their arms or legs against things. They also sometimes like to tear tight-fit clothes.
It’s true that children outgrow sensory issues or sensitivities over time. But children with autism take a longer time to do so. These sensitivities can also worsen when a child gets uncomfortable, anxious or stressed.
Sensory issues cannot be helped with children with autism. That’s why it’s important for you to know the teaching strategies that would work best for them as you teach them social skills.
Read more: Sensory Workouts for People with Autism
How to teach social skills to children with autism
If your child is easily overwhelmed, give them extra time to take in what you’re teaching. Introduce them to new things gradually and give them a ‘quiet space’ to avoid overwhelm.
If your child needs more stimulation, make sure that they get more time to play outside. Give them plenty of physical activities that stimulate their mind and body. Let them bounce on a trampoline, play dough or listen to music.
Overall, developing your kid’s social skills would take much time and practice. As a parent or guardian, the best way to help your child learn is to give them love. Foster self-esteem and simplify your language to their level. Don’t forget to celebrate your child’s milestones. Praise and compliment them when appropriate to reinforce positive behavior.
There are many other activities to teach your kid with autism social skill. Hopefully, these 10 tips will give you a head start. Don’t forget – practice patience, be consistent, be a role model. Most of all, keep things fun for you and your child.
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