The development of social skills begins before age one year when social orienting begins. When your newborn looks at you and makes eye contact and smiles in an interactive fashion she is orienting to you. From birth to age one she awakens to her own thoughts and desires and makes the statement “I am.” From age one to three she realizes her actions bring about change. She realizes “she can” change the world. When a child under age one looks at an object and then back at her mother and then back at the object she is asking her mother to look at the object. This is joint attention. Joint attention is one of the hallmarks that predicts social language development. As a child progresses into pre-school, school age and young adult years social language development accelerates. Imitation is followed by the ability to regulate social interaction. The ability to have negative as well as positive affect on others is recognized, as is the power of expressions and the use of gestures. Social skills progress and the ability to play becomes part of her social skills. Her play is flexible, appropriate and has a variety of action and expression. Children with ASDs are limited in this social skill progression.
For all children you can increase joint attention and social reciprocity by integrating activities into your daytime schedule that require these skills. In this way the teaching of these skills will become part of your daily routine. The foundation skills are the abilities to give, take and share. These turn taking skills are the hallmarks of cooperative play and social awareness.
The desire and ability to take turns in individual and then group settings is taken for granted. Children with ASDs have difficulty performing reciprocal interactions and this hinders their turn taking skills. Although there are some similarities between shy children who are often along the sidelines during activities there is much that is dissimilar. Shy children due to lack of practice and general disinterest may lag in social skills but generally they know how to initiate and maintain contact with others. Shyness causes children to make a decision not to pursue contact due to emotional hesitation and fear. Children with ASDs, on the other hand, are not aware of the social skills necessary and often are inept and not interest in pursuing them not out of emotional hesitancy but rather due to a lack of social awareness, knowledge and interest. In addition, children with ASDs are often placed in social situations where others make them feel uncomfortable. This may be a planned discomfort as is seen with bullying behavior or undirected discomfort when they interact with someone unaware of their developmental disorder who responds in a negative fashion. These experiences condition the child with ASD to be wary and disinterested in social interaction and social skill development lags further behind. This is why during social skill training direct attention must be given to your child and any secondary negative emotional responses must be addressed and resolved. Choose a social skill curriculum that is supported by your child’s learning style and interests. Most children with ASDs are better at visual learning than auditory learning. Try to use lessons that have a visual component such as cartooning or the use of inanimate objects to provide prompts on body positioning and orienting. Visual cuing, modeling, scripts, games, social stories, and any peer mediated leisure or play experience that requires shared interest and attention are very useful.
School sponsored social groups integrated into the school day and private social skill groups are helpful in providing controlled and naturalistic environments to learn skills that will be needed for future spontaneous experiences. As always, success is found in practice. Rarely will skills suddenly appear. Hard work and the effort of all who are involved with the care of your child are needed if success is to be found.