26th October 2023
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?
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
Autism-specific or inclusive social groups.
Having an understanding peer group can help support social interaction.
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.
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