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Social Interaction

Difficulties with social interaction is a criterion that is used to diagnose autism. However, as autism is a spectrum, this can present differently in each individual. For example, someone may enjoy social interaction when initiated by others, some may seek social interaction but feel anxious or unsure about how to initiate it themselves, others may be content not pursuing social interaction at all. 

Difficulties with social interaction could also look like: 

  • Difficulty expressing emotions 
  • Difficulty recognising other people’s feelings 
  • Finding it hard to form friendships 

However your child feels about social interaction, it is an unavoidable part of everyday life, and building social skills is important for building relationships, making friends and learning.  

Why is social interaction important? 

  • Improved Communication: Social interaction is a key platform for communication development. Encouraging your child to interact with others can enhance their ability to express thoughts, feelings, and needs. 
  • Enhanced Empathy: Social interactions teach children to understand and empathise with others’ emotions and perspectives, which is an essential skill for building relationships. 

TIP: As struggling with empathy is seen as a feature of being autistic, people can forget that empathy goes both ways. Without having lived experience of autism, it may be hard to understand why autistic individuals act the way they do. Part of supporting your autistic child could also include extending your empathy to increase awareness of their sensitivities or struggles. 

  • Reduced Isolation: Developing social skills can reduce feelings of isolation and improve a child’s overall well-being. 
  • Practical Life Skills: Many practical life skills, such as taking turns, problem-solving, and conflict resolution, are developed through social interactions. 
  • Preparation for Independence: As children grow into adolescents and adults, social skills are vital for independence and success in various aspects of life, including education and employment. 

How can I support developing my child’s social interaction? 


Planned/structured Play 

This is play structured by adults. During structured play you provide recourses and give clear guidelines about what to do when. This means tasks have clear steps and goals, making it a lower-stress environment for autistic children to practise interaction skills. 

Structured play can help develop early play like sharing and taking turns.  

Examples of structured play activities include: jigsaw puzzles, card matching activities, board games, lego, colouring or painting by numbers.  


  • Make the play motivating by choosing an activity that centres your child’s interests. For example, if they love animals you could begin with an animal matching game, or an animal jigsaw puzzle. 
  • Choose an activity that is developmentally appropriate. This activity should be low stress to increase engagement, so ensure it is something your child is able to do. 
  • Reward your child for completing each stage of the play. When your child successfully completes a task offer praise, or an action they love (e.g. blowing bubbles, clapping your hands).  
  • Use visual aids to support with explaining the order of tasks. Represent each stage of the activity with a cue card (this could be a word, an image or both). Arrange these in order, and remove them as your child completes a stage. Try to gradually withdraw the visual aids as they get more used to an activity. 
  • Keep structured playtime short. 


You can use role-play before social events to test out conversations and ideas of play. For example, you and your autistic child could: 

  • Do a role-play of an initiating play exchange. Pretend to be another child, and support your child to start a conversation and suggest a game to play.  
  • Play the games that the children might play together.  
  • Practise talking about things like what you’ve been watching on YouTube, or what you did at the weekend. Model asking questions and turn-taking. 

For older children you could try setting up problem solving solutions. For example, set up a scenario where two people both want to play with the same toy. Role-play possible conflict solving options – for example, how to politely ask someone if you would like a turn, or how to fairly share the toy by playing together or evenly distributing your time. 

Visual aids and resources 

Visual aids can be a helpful tool to support social interaction. Visual aids support individuals by removing the stress of having to memorise tasks and ensuring the individual knows what’s coming next by displaying information in a structured way.

Visual aids can also be used to support children who struggle with imaginative play.

Examples of visual aids include: 

  • Social stories 
  • Social Scripts 
  • Feelings wheel 
  • Visual timetable 

View our information page about communication here.

View our current communication resources here.

Other support 

Autism-specific or inclusive social groups. 

Having an understanding peer group can help support social interaction.  

Browse our directory of support services in Leeds, or check the Leeds Local Offer to see what is available.

If your child has a particular hobby or interest but may need support accessing a mainstream club – see if they are eligible for support through Scope’s Activities for All scheme.  

School support 

Speak to your child’s school or setting if you are concerned about their social skills – you could do this by setting up a meeting with their class teacher and school SENCO. School may be able to offer some interventions during school time that can help. This could include 1:1 interventions or group interventions to practise structured play, or a break/lunch time club. 

Additional support and resources:

This information is not affiliated with Leeds Mencap

The Hanen Centre Autism Corner

National Autistic society page on supporting your autistic child to make friends

Relationship, Health and Sex Education (RHSE)

What is Relationship, Health and Sex Education?

The Government Statutory Guidance around Relationship and Sex Education (RSE) states that:

The aim of RSE is to give young people the information they need to help them develop healthy, nurturing relationships of all kinds, not just intimate relationships’.

‘This will help pupils understand the positive effects that good relationships have on their mental wellbeing, identify when relationships are not right and understand how such situations can be managed.’

Since September 2020, Relationships Education has been compulsory for all pupils receiving primary education and Relationships and Sex Education (RSE) for all pupils receiving secondary education. Health Education is now compulsory in all schools too.

Children and young people are growing up in an increasingly complex world and they need to know how to be safe and healthy. RSE helps them embrace the challenges of creating a happy and successful adult life. These subjects support children and young people to develop healthy relationships, and to keep themselves and others safe, both on and offline. It also provides pupils with the knowledge that will enable them to make informed decisions about their wellbeing.

What is taught in schools?

By the end of Primary school children will have been taught:

  • Information about healthy relationships including:
  • Communicating their own boundaries and recognising the boundaries of others
  • Staying safe online
  • The difference between appropriate and inappropriate or unsafe contact
  • Teaching about different family models and same-sex relationships
  • Health Education
  • Puberty including menstruation
  • Characteristics of good physical health and mental wellbeing

By the end of Secondary school children will have been taught about:

  • Families
  • Respectful relationships including friendships
  • Online and media
  • Being safe
  • Intimate and sexual relationships including sexual health in an age-appropriate and inclusive way
  • The law

RSHE and the Law

It is a legal requirement for RHSE to be taught in schools. The government expects:

all schools to teach the full RSHE curriculum to secondary age pupils and relationships and health education to primary age pupils.’

Parents have a right to request that their child is withdrawn from sex education, but not from relationships education.

Parents and RSE

It is natural for children and teenagers to be curious about sex and relationships as they grow older but for parents and carers this can be a very worrying time, who may worry their child is growing up too quickly or they may be worried about their safety.

The NSPCC suggest the following when wanting to start a conversation with your child about sex and relationships:

  • Try to find a good time to start a conversation. Pick a time when your child’s relaxed and when there aren’t other people in your family around. You might want to have the conversation in a neutral place, such as on a walk or a bike ride, or even in the car, rather than somewhere at home where you might be interrupted.
  • It can help to make the conversation relevant to something that’s happened recently. For example, if you’ve been watching a TV series or film where one of the characters is in a relationship. You could ask your child what they think about the character’s relationship and if it’s healthy or unhealthy. Or if your child’s been learning about sex and relationships education in school, you could ask them how they’re finding this or what everyone in the class thought about it.
  • Try not to rush the conversation and let your child talk to you in their own time. It can help to have several short conversations rather than trying to cover everything at once. If your child feels uncomfortable, let them know that you’re there if they want to talk to you about relationships at a different time.

There is lots more advice on the NSPCC website if you are worried about your child’s relationship and/or want advice and information about a range of topics including Sexting and Grooming: Link here to NSPCC Healthy relationships | NSPCC

If you have a younger child you may still be concerned about them hearing things about sex and relationships. The NSPCC Talk Pants Resource Talk PANTS helps children understand that their body belongs to them, and they should tell someone they trust if anything makes them feel upset or worried.

The Talk PANTS rules are:

  • Pants are private
  • Always remember your body belongs to you
  • No means no
  • Talk about secrets that upset you
  • Speak up, someone can help

Link here Talk PANTS & Join Pantosaurus – The Underwear Rule | NSPCC

RSE for pupils with SEND


The curriculum and topics covered in RSE sessions in school for children and young people with SEND will be similar or the same as those without SEND but the pace and detail may be different. Schools may need to tailor the content and teaching to meet the specific needs of pupils.

RSE and Autism

Autistic young people may develop in different ways to their non-autistic peers, and this may include differences in:

  • Social awareness
  • Communication
  • Emotional recognition

Many autistic young people find change difficult and the physical, emotional and social changes that that occur during puberty can be very distressing, especially as they can be unpredictable. Sensory aspects of puberty can also be very concerning, for example, smelling different, developing body hair, starting periods etc.

The Leeds organisation STARS (Specialist Training in Autism and Raising Standards) has more information and resources about RSE and autism including those aimed specifically at parents:

RSE and Physical disabilities

Young people with physical disabilities may have anxiety about having a different body shape or image, may worry about how their body works and what others may think. They may have additional worries and questions about puberty, how they can have sex and whether they can have children.

Supporting your child with Special Educational Needs and Disabilities with RSE

  • Start talking to your child early so that problems are less likely to arise. Make a plan about how you will talk with and to your child
  • Talk openly and casually, perhaps while you’re doing something else, such as washing up or driving the car. This gives the message that it is not something secretive or to be afraid of
  • It is important that your child can ask you questions. Answer honestly and if you don’t know the answer say you will find out. If your child asks a question at a difficult time prepare a response, e.g. “that’s a good question, let’s talk about it later”. However, ensure you do return to their question or you risk your child not coming back to you in future.
  • Read books and leaflets, watch videos and take advantage of situations that might arise (for example on television) that might help trigger a conversation
  • Use the correct terminology when talking about body parts. Knowing the correct words for parts of their body helps to keep children and young people safe and look after their health. Even if you use other words at home, it’s important that children know the correct terms too.
  • Don’t give up if your first attempt doesn’t go well. Try a different approach or an alternative resource such as a book, video link or website

Additional support from Leeds MENCAP

Speak to other parents with children with SEN and disabilities on our closed Facebook group.

Follow us on Facebook to hear about our upcoming events.

Check out the rest of our Family Support offer. We have:

  • Weekly Chats and Tots coffee morning
  • Family Support workers who can offer advice, signposting and support
  • Lots of tips and resources about RSE on our website

Additional support and Resources

This information is not affiliated with Leeds MENCAP.

Read an overview of what children learn in Relationship and Sex Education: What do children and young people learn in relationship, sex and health education – The Education Hub (blog.gov.uk)

Read about supporting a SEND child with puberty from a parent’s perspective: Puberty! – Parenting Special Needs Magazine, Puberty and disabled teens | Family Lives

Watch a selection of short videos about consent: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LO3i1EJE6DI


What is anxiety?

Anxiety is a feeling of unease such as fear or worry. It is one of the body’s natural responses to stress, and affects our thoughts, feelings, body and behaviour. Anxiety activates the body’s fight-flight-freeze response. This means that the body prepares to either confront, escape or freeze in the face of a perceived threat.

Most of us will experience anxiety; it is a normal human response to be anxious in certain situations. However, for some people anxiety can begin to affect their wellbeing and they need support.

Anxiety in children

For children and young people in particular, some level of anxiety is normal as they grow up and learn to navigate the world. It helps them to cope with potential threats, and understand how they feel about different situations they encounter. For example, from the age of around 6 months to 3 years it is very common for young children have separation anxiety; they may become clingy and cry when separated from their parents and carers. This is a normal stage in a child’s development and usually stops in time.

Difficulties can arise when normal levels of anxiety become more severe and start impacting a child’s everyday life. Anxiety can become a problem when:

  • it is constant, intense, and overwhelming
  • it occurs in response to no real threat, or the threat is exaggerated
  • it interferes with someone’s daily life and stops them doing things they want to.

Severe anxiety can harm children’s mental and emotional wellbeing, affecting their self-esteem and confidence. They may become withdrawn and go to great lengths to avoid things or situations that make them feel anxious.

Signs of Anxiety

Anxiety can present in different forms in children and young people. When young children feel anxious, they cannot always understand or express what they are feeling but you may notice your child:

  • becomes irritable, tearful or clingy
  • has difficulty sleeping
  • wakes in the night
  • starts wetting the bed
  • has bad dreams

When older children experience anxiety it may manifest in the form of avoidant behaviours. They may:

  • avoid everyday activities such as seeing friends, going out in public
  • have difficulty concentrating
  • withdrawal from social activities
  • seem tired, fidgety or absent-minded
  • have angry outbursts
  • have trouble eating or sleeping
  • not be completing tasks or homework
  • be constantly seeking reassurance
  • have frequent headaches, stomach aches, etc.
  • be avoiding difficult situations, such as tests or assessments
  • have a lot of negative thoughts, or keep thinking bad things are going to happen

How to support an anxious child

If a child is experiencing anxiety, there are things parents and carers can do to help.


Talk to your child about their worries or anxiety. Reassure them and show them you understand how they feel.


Teach your child to recognise the signs of anxiety in themselves. Physical signs of anxiety include:

  • your heart beating faster
  • dry throat
  • churning stomach
  • feeling sick or dizzy
  • feeling hot and sweaty
  • feeling strange like you are not really there
  • unable to think straight


Children of all ages find routine reassuring, so try to stick to regular daily routines where possible. If you know a change, for example a house move, is coming up. Prepare your child about what will be happening and why.


Distraction can help for young children, for example if they are anxious about going to school, play a game on the journey.


Focus on what helps. Instead of trying to reassure a child that nothing bad will happen, focus on what helped them cope when they faced a similar situation. Help a child think through what they have learned about their fears and about themselves. Did their worry come true? Did they cope?


Practise simple relaxation techniques with your child, such as taking 3 deep, slow breaths, breathing in for a count of 3 and out for 3. Other mindfulness or relaxation techniques can also help:


Encourage your child to be physically active – exercise can help reduce anxiety

Children with Special Educational Needs and Anxiety

Anxiety can be missed in children with Special Educational Needs (SEN) as the differences observed can be assumed to be part of their diagnosis, for example, Autism or ADHD.

Children with SEN may feel anxious because:

  • They have more difficulty with learning or are further behind with than their peers
  • They are struggling socially, for example, feeling overwhelmed in busy, social places
  • They may feel different and that they don’t fit in

The following tips to help your SEN child with anxiety should considered in addition to those in the above section:

  1. Notice when your child seems more anxious, for example a child with Autism may rock or flap their hands.
  2. Anxiety can be greater when children feel bad about themselves:
    • Give your child some responsibility, for example, a manageable task to do. This will make them feel useful and could boost their confidence
    • Encourage independence, this gives your child the message that you know they are capable
    • Encourage your child to engage in a hobby or special interest
  3. Visualisation – visual reminders of how to regulate anxiety, can help. These could be photos or pictures of a special thing, place or person.
  4. Social stories can be useful in helping children understand and respond to anxiety and can provide or remind children of coping strategies or techniques
  5. View ‘My Worries’ template here. View ‘How do I feel today? worksheet here. View ‘How do I respond?’ worksheet here.

When to seek help for your child

If your child’s anxiety is severe, persists ad interferes with their everyday life, it is good idea to get some help:

  • Talk to your GP
  • Talk to your child’s school, they may be able to support them in school by providing a calm space, for example, or providing activities to promote self-esteem. They may also be able to refer your child to other services that could help, such as art or play therapy
  • Children aged 11 to 18 can access Kooth – a free online counselling service or The Marketplace Leeds, a drop in centre for young people offering advice and counselling on a range of subjects affecting young people


It can be stressful and worrying supporting a child or young person with anxiety. It’s important that you:

  • Don’t struggle alone – talk to someone about it. Look at the support you have and what else is available in your local area. This could be a nursery/school, a friend, another parent in a similar situation, a parent’s group
  • Ask for help if you need it – many people go on struggling with very difficult situations because they feel they should be able to cope.
  • Take time for yourself – getting some rest or taking a bit of time off can be beneficial even if it is only for a short time such as having a bath or going for a walk.
  • Don’t blame yourself – you are doing the best you can
  • Talk to your GP if you need help and support – if you feel you are not coping speak to your GP about what support they can offer

Additional support from Leeds Mencap

Speak to other parents with children with SEN and disabilities on our closed Facebook group.

Follow us on Facebook to hear about our upcoming events.

Check out the rest of our Family Support offer. We have:

  • Weekly Chats and Tots coffee morning
  • Family Support workers who can offer advice, signposting and support
  • Lots of tips and resources about anxiety in our Member’s Area on our website

Additional support and Resources

This information is not affiliated with Leeds MENCAP.

Read about activities aimed at children to reduce anxiety and worry here Calm zone | Childline

Watch a video about children’s anxiety and tips for parents here Place2Be: Parenting Smart: My child is anxious

Read about tips to reduce separation anxiety here rebuild-and-recover-separation-anxiety-tips-and-guidance.pdf (mentallyhealthyschools.org.uk)

Read the parent’s guide to looking after yourself here – Parents’ Guide to Looking After Your Mental Health | YoungMinds

Watch a selection of videos about children and anxiety here – Anxiety Videos for Parents and Carers | Nip in the Bud

Challenging Behaviour

All children, at times, display behaviours that challenges and it is part of normal child development. There is a reason behind all behaviour; a child may not know or understand what behaviours are inappropriate, they may be feeling scared or worried, or the behaviour can be a way of communicating and influencing the world around them.

Challenging behaviours might include:

  • Temper tantrums (e.g. screaming, refusal)
  • Hurting others (e.g. hair pulling, hitting, head-butting)
  • Verbal aggression (e.g. swearing, shouting, refusing)
  • Self-injury (e.g. head banging, eye poking, hand biting)
  • Destructive behaviours (e.g. throwing things, breaking furniture, tearing things up)
  • Eating inedible objects (e.g. play doh, glue, chalk)
  • Other behaviours (e.g. spitting, running away, smearing, removing clothes in public)

What can I do?

Look for triggers

Look for things that seem to trigger challenging behaviour. It may help to keep a behaviour log or diary. Try keeping a note of:

  • The date and time
  • The behaviour
  • What happened before
  • Any consequences

Download a trigger diary template from SCOPE here.

View a behaviour chart template here.

For children and young people with additional needs such as autism, the trigger may be a routine being changed or interrupted or a sensory issue such as a noisy environment.

Read about preparing for change from the National Autistic Society: A guide for all audiences (autism.org.uk)

Consistency, routines and choice

Being consistent helps children to know when their behaviour is good and when it isn’t. Having established routines can help with challenging behaviour as it makes the world more predictable and children know what to expect, for example, having a consistent bedtime routine. Giving children limited choices can also help manage behaviour, for example ‘Would you like sausages or chicken nuggets for tea?

The following strategies can also help manage challenging behaviour for children with SEND:

  • Use of additional communication strategies, such as a visual timetable or First and Then or choice board. These can help reinforce established routines at home and at school by providing a visual representation – see our Communication page for more details.
  • Supporting transitions from one place to another or between activities can also help. This could be through a verbal countdown or reminder: ‘Remember this is your last go on the bike, then it’s time to play in the sand’ or through use of a timer.
  • Meeting sensory needs. Giving a child time to process instructions or trying to reduce distractions from noise may have a positive effect on behaviour.

Talk to your child’s school

Talking to school may help you to manage your child’s behaviour consistently and give you the opportunity to share your concerns and work together. Meeting regularly at the beginning or end of a term may give you opportunity to discuss any common triggers seen at school and at home, discuss successful strategies and work together to support your child.

The school may suggest putting some SEN Support in place. This involves looking closely at your child’s needs and putting strategies in place to support them and may involve support from an Educational Psychologist. The school may also suggest other agencies that could support you and your child. This may be a referral into the school’s cluster support services or signposting you to NHS services or charities and organisations that can offer support.

Link to SCOPE’s website here: Home | Disability charity Scope UK

Link to Challenging Behaviour foundation here: Homepage for the Challenging Behaviour Foundation

Managing your stress

Many parents and carers of children with challenging behaviour feel stressed and worried. It is important to talk to someone about how you are feeling. Other ways to help could include:

  • Look at the support you have and what else is available in your local area. This could be a nursery/school, a friend, another parent in a similar situation, a parent’s group
  • Take time for yourself – getting some rest or taking a bit of time off can be beneficial even if it is only for a short time such as having a bath or going for a walk.
  • Talk to your GP if you need help and support – if you feel you are not coping speak to your GP about what support they can offer

What can we do?

Speak to other parents with disabled children on our closed Facebook group.

Follow us on Facebook to hear about our upcoming events.

Check out the rest of our Family Support offer.

Additional support and resources

This information isn’t affiliated with Leeds MENCAP.

Watch the Challenging Behaviour Foundation’s video about challenging behaviour here. Video challenging behaviour – Challenging Behaviour Foundation

Watch the Challenging Behaviour Foundation’s video about supporting and changing challenging behaviour here. Video Supporting Change – Challenging Behaviour Foundation

Watch the Challenging Behaviour Foundation’s video about the impact of behaviour on families here. Wellbeing of family – Challenging Behaviour Foundation

Read about a parent’s experience of managing challenging behaviour here. Parent experience; Erica – MindMate

Read about behaviour being communication here. Behaviour-is-communication.pdf (mindmate.org.uk)

Read more about autism and anger management here:

 A guide for parents and carers (autism.org.uk)Meltdowns – a guide for all audiences (autism.org.uk)

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