Teaching social skills to students on the autism spectrum can be one of the most challenging and rewarding tasks
to carry out. It is through social abilities that academic knowledge is expressed in society. Even communication
skills carry little influence if social skills are not developed to provide the ability to communicate. Social difficulties
for people with autism are diverse. Some are faint and some involve severe antisocial behavior. All involve problems
with social understanding and may be affected by difficulties with attention, communication, problem solving,
cognition, sensory processing, and motor problems.
Researchers have worked to describe and understand the wide range of social deficits displayed by people on the
autism spectrum, including unusual eye gaze, impaired joint attention, and a lack of theory of mind, that is, an
ability to attribute beliefs, intents, desires or other mental states to oneself and others, and to understand that these
may be different in other people. Improved social functioning can lead to more and better relationships, something
that may have a direct impact on mental health by preventing the feelings of isolation and loneliness that many older
children and adolescents with autism spectrum disorder convey.
Difficulties in social understanding and ability to engage in reciprocal interactions with people are related to autism
and one of the characteristics. Social isolation, lack of social etiquette, lack of social awareness, and difficulties
with social timing may all be part of the dilemma. Sometimes children who are higher functioning learn to follow
routines and rules and their social impairments are concealed in a structured setting, while other children have great
difficulty in group settings where they can’t manage all the stimuli.
In building social capability one of the essential skills is joint attention and another is imitation. Children learn
through mutual interactions and play that involve joint attention and imitation with adults and with peers. Some of
the social skills necessary for school age children mostly involve work behaviors or personal habits such as
listening, following directions, sitting, organizing, attending, ignoring, taking correction, or finishing work rather
than on reciprocal interactions or social understanding. There are many areas of social skill development and for
children with autism most of these are challenges.
Joint attention is the ability to share a common focus on something (people, objects, a concept, an event, etc.) with
someone else. It involves the ability to gain, maintain, and shift attention. Joint attention is a basic skill that needs to
be taught and encouraged in children with autism of all ages. The child with autism may have delayed initiating,
responding, and processing time. Joint attention involves pre-linguistic communication skills that are used to initiate
or maintain turn-taking routines and used to request or acquiring help in attaining objects. Joint attention is used to
direct attention in order to share the experience of an object or event with another person. Children with autism
have trouble alternating eye contact between an interesting object and person or pointing or showing an object for
the social purpose of sharing enjoyment.
Children with joint attention problems do better with one partner at a time and need lots of practice in back and
forth social engagement. Joint attention involves the following:
• showing something to someone and looking for that person’s reaction
• looking at something someone else points to or is looking at, and
• pointing at something to direct someone to look at an object or event (this doesn’t mean that the child points at
candy to get candy, but points as if to comment about the object and share this comment with a partner.)
Joint attention may often be used initially to make requests or ask for help in obtaining objects or activities. Another
good time to practice joint attention skills is during a daily routine. Since many children with autism tend to have
more success with daily functioning when they have consistent routines, activities such as brushing teeth, walking
the dog, and eating dinner can be good opportunities to practice joint attention.
Use gestures, such as pointing, along with eye gaze, to show the child what to focus on. Point at objects a child is
familiar with and has an interest. Keep in mind that practicing joint attention skills in the child’s natural environment
can help him/her achieve communication and social success at home, at school, and in the community.
Some Ideas that can be used to help with joint attention:
• Kneel at the child’s level at first to make it easier to shift gaze from object to face.
• Imitate what the child is doing with an identical toy or object that the child has.
• Take the toy a child is playing with and show it to him/her, comment, and wait for them to reach for it.
• Play with toys that draw the child’s attention to your face. (Bubbles, pinwheels, balloons)
• Play with toys that draw attention to the adult’s actions. (Toys interactive toys with sounds, musical toys)
• Play with toys that facilitate reciprocal interaction (balls, blocks in a form box, a train, puppets, and telephone)
• Play with toys that facilitate requests for help (a jar which help is needed to open, a favorite object out of reach,
wind-up toys that are too hard to turn)
• Hold onto an object that you are giving to the child until the child looks at you. Bring it to eye level.
Individuals with autism exhibit significant deficits in imitation skills. Imitation requires attention to a partner and a
motor response from the child. Attention must be gained, the message must reach the brain and tell the body what
to do, and then the body must respond. Time to do all this must be considered for the child with autism as well as
distractions in the environment. Motivation to imitate often comes from joint attention and desire to engage in
reciprocal interactions with other people.
In autism, imitation and joint attention behaviors are related and increases in one positively affect the other.
Reciprocal imitation also plays an important role in early peer interactions. Imitation deficits may further disrupt the
development of peer play, as early peer interactions are significantly based on reciprocal imitation with toys.
Children with autism display significant deficits in imitation which are associated with impairments in other social-
communication skills. Imitation serves both as learning tool and social strategy, its disruption is likely to have a
profound effect on learning and development.
Types of Imitation
The three forms of imitation include vocal imitation, which is the imitation of sounds and words, physical
imitation (also referred to as gestures imitation or motor imitation) which is the imitation of body movements, and
manipulative-imitation (also referred to as toy-play imitation) which is imitation of object manipulation.
A child can’t learn what sharing and taking turns means without joint attention skills. It also helps to be able to
imitate. However, it isn’t necessary to understand the purpose of others to learn how to take turns and share.
Sharing involves alternation or turn-taking of space, time with an object, place in line, time at an activity, or place to
sit in a car. Sharing involves learning when to produce a sound, when to move, or what possession means. For
instance, is it mine because I have it in my hand, because it is in front of me, or because it is in my house? If a
child with autism is reprimanded for not taking turns or sharing, he/she is not likely to understand the other child’s
position or the reasons for the need to share. A rule must be applied, rather than a problem-solving strategy.
Play is described as enjoyable, active engagement in freely chosen activities, efficiently motivating without external
reward or demands. Play routines often encourage joint attention and imitation. Play is pleasurable and fun. Children
with autism engage in solitary play that involves placement of objects in certain ways, reciprocity and joint attention
from this type of play can be encouraged. Play is to be enjoyed and takes place at the pace of the child while
encouraging choice making and expanding interests.
Pretend Play can be solitary or with a partner. It can be accomplished with objects having actual features like
drinking from an empty cup as pretend or pretending an object is something else like a block is a car. Pretending
involves disconnecting from reality and understanding it is pretend. It also involves converting people and objects to
roles and understanding that it is play as well as imagining and imitating feelings, desires, and beliefs; and socially
Additional Areas of Social Skill Development:
These develop as the child grows, but need to be specifically taught to children with autism.
• Social referencing involves awareness of and reactions to emotional cues of others which develops through
• Understanding emotional cues of others develops as children grow.
• Expressing own emotions through socially acceptable means - deal with anxiety and frustrations as well as
express excitement and joy and sadness.
• Understand that other people think and feel differently from self.
• Interpret and understands feelings and emotions of others.
• Adjust actions based on knowledge.
• Build friendships around common interests with some compromising.
• Accept explanations of equality.
Principles of Society
• Uses thank you, please, I’m sorry, and others as required.
• Uses greetings/closings - good bye, shakes hands, says hello.
• Uses eye contact socially
Group Skills Expected
• Some of these might include: being quiet, raising hand, standing in line, cleaning up, using shared items, sitting in
appropriate place, or listening.
• Following waiting rules
• Being flexible - when? where? with whom?
•Telling the truth, whole truth? what is truth?
• Following possession and boundary rules